Tag Archives: jokes

Comedy is difficult because tragedy can be funny & jokes can sadden audiences

In the final week of the recent  Edinburgh Fringe, I staged five daily hour-long chat shows. In the third show, the guests were English eccentric adventurer Tim Fitzhigham and comedian Patrick Monahan. This is a brief extract:

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Tim Fitzhigham (left) and Patrick Monahan chat in Edinburgh

Tim Fitzhigham (left) & Patrick Monahan chat in Edinburgh

JOHN: Remind us what your background is, Patrick.

PATRICK: Me dad is Irish, me mum’s Iranian and I grew up in Teesside in North East England.

TIM: It’s almost the set-up for a joke… A Geordie, an Iranian and an Irish guy…

PATRICK: Well, I did a gig in Germany and they were laughing at the set-ups, not the punchlines. I would say Me dad’s from Ireland, me mum’s from Iran… and they’d go Ha ha! Oh yes!… and I’d think I’ve not done the joke yet. Then I’d add: We spent most of our family holidays in Customs and they wouldn’t laugh. They’d react Yes, that is true.

I did those jokes for a few years but I thought I don’t want to get pigeon-holed. One year, I’d like to just talk about the Irish-Iranian background stuff. But I don’t think I’ve matured enough as a comic yet to do that. It gets quite serious and you think Oh god, do people really want to hear about…

TIM: Well, the stuff you want to talk about in a serious way… I tried it and people were crying with laughter. I was going into what was, in my head, a very moving section of my show about when our family home sank and… (AUDIENCE LAUGHTER)… You see? It’s already started. I thought this was my confessional minute and I was explaining how, when I was a child, my father would just close off the doors and lock them because they’d gone under the water line. I thought it was a real, emotional tear-jerker and I said to the audience: Dad closed the kitchen door and he locked it and said Don’t play in there any more and then he turned to me and said Where’s the cat? I was really moved by that. The cat had gone under the water line. The cat had drowned. But the way I phrased it must have been a disaster, because the audience was weeping with laughter.

PATRICK: Once, about a year ago, I was playing a theatre in Didcot and thought I’d do some personal stuff. I had a joke about my grandparents – the Iranian and the Irish. There was one point where our families didn’t speak when I was growing up. I told the audience, as a kid, I loved old people, but our family never spoke – the Irish and the Iranians. So I said I used to go to old people’s homes with biscuits, just so old people would talk to me. And the whole audience just went Aaawwwwww….. I’m trying to do a joke here but, for a minute, they were just Aaawwwwwwing and I thought What have I done here? They were all really sad. So I thought OK, let’s talk about something different. So I never really touch on the personal stuff now.

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The road to Hell – my defence of sexist, racist and (yes certainly) rape jokes

(This piece was also published by the Huffington Post and by India’s We Speak News)

Frankie Boyle’s autobiography

As I write this, comedian Frankie Boyle is still in the High Court. He is suing the Daily Mirror for libel after they called him a “racist”. His barrister says it is perfectly OK to call him “vile” but not a racist.

His barrister told the jury that, during his Channel 4 Tramadol Nights show, Frankie had told a joke which contained the word ‘nigger’. The thrust of his argument was that racist words do not necessarily mean racist thoughts. Frankie Boyle, his barrister said, was attacking racists in the joke. Context is everything.

Almost a fortnight ago, I wrote a blog headed In Defence of rape jokes though, in fact, it said that I do not like rape jokes, as I have known and worked with three women who were raped as children and, by and large, the people who tell rape jokes are bad comedians going for a cheap (shock) laugh.

I wrote: “Trying to ban rape jokes is like trying to put sticking plaster over a symptom to hide an unsightly abscess, not cure the problem. It is the wrong target. The aim, surely, should be trying to stop audiences laughing at rape jokes.”

My So It Goes blog was picked up and reprinted a week later by the Huffington Post (though dated by them as 4th October).

In response to that Huffington Post piece, I got this e-mail from the people at ‘Rape Is No Joke’ (whom I had not named):

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Dear John Flemming, (sic)

I am writing to correct a number of inaccuracies in your article ‘In Defence of Rape Jokes’ regarding our campaign ‘Rape Is No Joke’.

We are not advocating a ban on rape jokes and we do not believe a ban on something will fundamentally tackle an issue.

We are not calling for the subject of rape to become a taboo that is never mentioned in comedy. We are against jokes that trivialise the issue and the victim (which the vast majority of jokes about rape do).

Our pledge is asking comedians and venues to voluntarily sign up to say they won’t tell rape jokes or have them told in their venues as part of our campaign.

Our aim is to educate and tackle the, increasingly common, attitude that rape is something to be laughed at.

Obviously comedy isn’t the biggest offence facing women. However, comedy doesn’t exist in a bubble, it often reflects and has an effect on attitudes in wider society. Rape jokes add to the culture of dismissal and trivialising of rape that exists all too often in wider society. Whilst 80,000 women in the UK are raped every year, only 15% of them report it. Many of the other 85% are scared they won’t be believed or taken seriously. We want to start to tackle that culture. And we want to be able to enjoy comedy without misogyny.

We would be grateful if you could edit your article accordingly and remove the claims we want to ‘ban’ rape jokes.

Yours Sincerely,

_________

Now, far be it from me to criticise well-intentioned people, but this e-mail says: “We are not advocating a ban on rape jokes… Our pledge is asking comedians and venues to voluntarily sign up to say they won’t tell rape jokes or have them told in their venues”

If that ain’t advocating a ban on rape jokes, then daffodils are fish.

Good intentions. Bad idea.

The problem with banning any joke about anything is that who defines what the subject or the object of a  joke is? No rape jokes would, presumably mean no jokes – or sarcastic comments – about some of the late Jimmy Savile’s appalling activities. And, as I said in my original blog, where does it end? If rape jokes are banned then, surely, you must also ban jokes about murder. And, if you ban jokes about certain subjects told live on stage then, logically, you have to ban those same jokes on television and ban them in books, magazines and newspapers. Pretty soon, you will be trying to avoid people reading unacceptable comments previously expressed by burning books.

Today, comedian Rowan Atkinson is in the papers attacking the Public Order Act and “the creeping culture of censoriousness” and the “new intolerance”.

Rowan Atkinson attacks – in the Daily Mail today

According to today’s Daily Mail – not a publication known for criticising the police – a 16-year-old boy was recently arrested under the Public Order Act for peacefully holding up a placard reading ‘Scientology is a dangerous cult’, on the grounds that it might insult Scientologists.

In 2005, the Daily Mail points out, an Oxford University student was arrested for saying to a policeman: “Excuse me, do you realise your horse is gay?” Thames Valley police said he had made “homophobic comments that were deemed offensive to people passing by”. And a 16-year-old from Newcastle who growled and said “Woof!” to a labrador within earshot of police was prosecuted and fined £200 (later over-turned on appeal).

If the policing of public morality is happening at this unimportant level to this ludicrousness, then how much more oppressive would be the policing of any ban on more serious things – like jokes about rape?

Frankie Boyle’s barrister has been saying in court that the comedian has been called “racist” for telling jokes which were actively aimed against racists.

In a comment on my Facebook page about the Frankie Boyle court case, comedian Richard Herring observes:

“In none of the examples I have seen is Boyle using the words in a context other than to highlight other’s racism. If he is racist for just using the word, then anyone saying, ‘saying the word Paki is racist‘ is racist. So presumably everyone involved in the court case can now be called racist.”

Rowan Atkinson said yesterday: ‘The clear problem of the outlawing of insult is that too many things can be interpreted as such. Criticism, ridicule, sarcasm… can be interpreted as insult.”

The same can be said of jokes about rape. In my original blog, I linked to a superb piece of comedy by Janey Godley in which she referred to the fact that she herself was repeatedly raped as a child. This could, very clearly, be labelled a ‘rape joke’ though, in fact, it is not in any way making a joke of rape.

Banning any jokes about anything is a bad idea. Trying to get comedy club owners to ban comedians who (they believe) tell or have told or may tell ‘rape jokes’ is not just a bad idea, it is actively dangerous. Where does the censorship end?

Freedom of speech includes the right to be offensive.

The road to totalitarianism – to a police state – is partially paved with the good intentions of well-meaning people.

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Filed under Censorship, Comedy, Legal system, Racism, Sex

The serious subject of performing a comedy show at the Edinburgh Fringe

(This was also published in the Huffington Post)

Yesterday, someone asked me for advice about their next Edinburgh Fringe comedy show.

The Fringe does not start until next August, but now is the time people begin their preparation.

His problem was that he had a factually-based one-hour show and has fallen out with his on-stage partner. It happens. Fortunately, the person asking me had written the entire show on his own, otherwise there might have been tears over ownership.

“My show is written for two people” he told me. “It’s written for me and a sidekick/straight man. How do I translate that into just me? How would Eric do his act without Ernie? I don’t think I’m gonna find another partner in time. And the show is funny but factually-based. It’s going to end up sounding/feeling like a talk/lecture. How do I manage to keep the thing bubbling?”

“Well,” I suggested. “It’s already a show about true facts. You could tell the truth, say there was going to another person and it fell through. Then you play both parts straight but, in the way you tell the story and in the nature of playing two parts straight, it will be funny. The fact that the other guy is not appearing becomes part of the show, another layer, a sub-plot, added texture.”

“But how do I actually physically perform it?” the newly-solo act asked me.

“Just as a monologue,” I suggested. “Or you could do the old Tommy Cooper thing of literally wearing two different hats, depending on which person you are. That might get a bit tiresome over 55 minutes… Or it might work.

“Personally, I think you should just do it as a talk/lecture. It is the style and personality that makes it interesting. All one-hour stand-up shows are really just lectures made funny by the personality of the performer.

“If you have a one-hour comedy show, it has to be about one central thing, unless you’re a brilliant gag-machine act like Jimmy Carr, Milton Jones or Tim Vine.

“Most of the really creatively successful Edinburgh shows since 2004 (I date everything from Janey Godley’s jaw-dropping confessional Edinburgh Fringe show Good Godley!) have been about one aspect of the performer’s life or a series of anecdotes strung together with one central thread running through.

“That’s the difference between a comedy act that can last 20 minutes in a club (a series of unconnected gags) and a comedy show that lasts 55 minutes (smoothly-linked anecdotes that have an over-all subject and shape).

“In your case, you already have the subject. The trick in an hour-long Edinburgh Fringe show is not to find enough gags to fill-up 55 minutes. The trick is to find one story that will last 55 minutes and which, in the telling, will be incidentally funny at regular intervals.

“You should see one of Janey Godley’s shows,” I suggested. “She is possibly the best storyteller I have ever seen and I have seen a few. A lot of other comedians do not understand why she gets such totally OTT rave review quotes for her shows because, as fellow performers on a bill with her at some club, they have only ever seen little bits and pieces of her club act. She doesn’t really do traditional gags. She does personality. She does very good 20 or 30 minute spots, but her real forte is 60 or 90 minute shows.

“And the fascinating thing about her full-length shows is that there is almost nothing ‘funny’ in them at all. The subjects are all serious and very often horrendously sad. But her personality and storytelling makes them very, very funny. I don’t think of her as a stand-up comic. She is a very, very funny storyteller. It’s that Frank Carson line – It’s the way you tell ‘em.”

“Yeah, yeah,” the worried performer said, “You go on about Janey and she may be brilliant. But what do you yourself actually know about performing an Edinburgh show?”

“Nothing,” I admitted. “But most people don’t notice.”

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Bad language, cocaine smuggling and cavorting nuns in south west Ireland

All this week I have been in the Iveragh Peninsula in Kerry in the south west of Ireland – and I have been trying to figure out some way of blogging about it without seeming to be making an Irish joke.

The English make ‘Irish’ jokes.

In Ireland, they make the same jokes about people from Kerry.

The reason for this is presumably because it so so isolated. I am told an electricity supply only reached the populated island of Valentia, opposite where I am staying, in around 1963. The mobile phone signal here varies from eccentric to non-existent (mostly the latter) and, as for high-speed broadband, you can pretty much forget it. Modems tend to be dial-up and publicly-accessible WiFi in pubs and suchlike is a futuristic concept.

But it is always good to be in Ireland.

I am Scottish. I was born in a west coast fishing town and my parents grew up in two different seaside villages in south west Scotland – all of which look and feel exactly the same as Irish seaside villages. So I feel at home in Ireland.

I worked in Dublin in the 1990s. When people used to come over from England, I made sure they knew four of the key linguistic features of the language.

1) You must never talk of the larger of the two British Isles as “the mainland” – Never ever say you have come over from or are going back to “the mainland” – This will get right up people’s noses.

2) British-style football is called “soccer” in the Republic of Ireland – “Football” here refers to Gaelic Football.

3) Never, in a pub, ask for “plain crisps” when you mean salted crisps. Crisps here (as in Irish pubs on the “mainland”) are assumed to be cheese & onion or salt & vinegar. And those two are usually the only choice.

4) Finally, more difficult to explain in print, the Republic’s national flag – the three-coloured green, white and orange flag – is not pronounced with a short initial syllable but with a long one. So it is not said to be a “trick-olour” – it is pronounced like the two words “try colour”.

Some things have changed since I last worked here. In Kerry – and, the locals tell me, now in the rest of he Republic – you are taxed on the amount of rubbish you produce. As an inevitable result, people put padlocks on their wastebins to prevent other people putting extraneous garbage into their bins. There are also tax discs on rubbish bins.

Worse still, there is a high tax on chocolate which must surely, at some time, create cross-border chocolate smuggling. When I was in Dublin, Galway etc in the 1990s, there was a fairly hefty black market trade in cigarettes because of the tax difference north and south of the Border.

The Good News upside to all this, though, is that there are no Council Taxes/rates.

The landscapes here can be spectacularly other-worldly. Apparently J.R.R.Tolkien used to come on holiday here and sketched the Skelligs – two eccentrically pointed islands (I am told) before he wrote Lord of the Rings. They certainly look like some fantastical alien planet style Middle Earthly peaks.

I have been living in a house not too far from Ballinskelligs. When I get up in the morning, there are sheep on the hillside outside with red letters of the alphabet painted on their wool – to show which have been tupped. Some farmers use red, some green, some other colours; and occasionally one farmer’s cheap green dye has been known to run in rain resulting, I am told, in green sheep.

I am also told that, rarely but occasionally, the sheep with red letters on their wool can stand in an order which accidentally spells out a word. The people I am staying with swear they once looked out their window over breakfast and saw six sheep standing in the field spelling out the word FLEECE as if they were in some animal version of Countdown.

People around here often do not make wills and, when they die, any old cousin or familiar hanger-on can claim a bit of the estate, not just the immediate family, so disputes can drag on for years. Even when a will is made there can be problems.

Recently, a local man died and, in his will, he left his house to his son but one room in the house to his daughter. The brother and sister have since fallen out. The people I am staying with do not know how the sister gets to her room via the rest of the building which the brother owns if the brother decides to be really difficult about access.

But a harsher reality sometimes intrudes even here.

Recently, two £500 million cocaine shipments (ie together they were allegedly worth £1 billion) were intercepted within two weeks, both coming in by boat.

In the first case, in keeping with Kerry, the smugglers put petrol into a diesel engine, the ship broke down and broke up on the rocks. Packages of cocaine were washing up ashore all over the place like Whisky Galore!. If anyone found a bundle, they could be made for life. A spokesman for the Gardai (the police) said these sort of shipments were happening not just in this area but in several parts of Ireland every week. It was just a matter of luck if they were able to intercept occasional ones.

When I was here in the 1990s, I was told there was a problem intercepting drugs shipments because the Coastguard had boats and were responsible for guarding the seas, while the Gardai were responsible for inland security, including rivers, but had no boats.

So drug runners would bring shipments in around the Shannon area either by air or by sea and then use the Republic’s extensive river system to transport them to other parts of the country and to the North. If the Gardai wanted to intercept or chase them, they had to find some local with a boat and beg, borrow or negotiate a deal to rent it.

Inevitably things which seem to be likely plots from a sitcom like Father Ted become reality here.

Twenty or thirty nuns regularly take their summer holidays down the road from where I have been living and they used to wear their black and white habits while here (they no longer wear the habit on holiday). They were called “the penguins” by locals and could be seen cavorting on the beach.

“Ah! The penguins are on the beach!”

Someone I know here – who swears this is 100% true – says she was on the beach one day and heard two nuns shouting to each other:

“What’s the water like, Sister Mary?”

“Feckin’ freezin’!”

My chum (a practising Catholic) was shocked a nun would say “feckin”.

I am more bemused by the fact nuns were cavorting on the beach at all.

Who knew nuns took summer holidays? Not me. What else do they do on their holidays?

“Well,” my chum explained to me, “of course they have holidays. And lots of priests go to Cheltenham over the St Patrick’s Day weekend to bet on the horses. Maybe 80% of the people at the races that weekend are Irish, the local shops accept Euros and the place is awash with priests in dog collars.”

“But didn’t Jesus throw money-lenders and money-changers out of the temple in Jerusalem?” I asked.

“Maybe,” came the reply, “but I am more worried about the ‘feckin’ nuns. What sort of language is that?”

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Racial and racist jokes + what comic Bernard Manning told Lewis Schaffer

(A version of this blog was also published on the Chortle comedy website)

Whenever I mention the late comedian Bernard Manning in a blog, the number of hits goes up because some people get offended by the mere mention of him. It is like rattling the cage of a PC parakeet.

Live on stage, Bernard Manning was one of the best technical comedians I have ever seen .

In yesterday’s blog – in passing – I mentioned both Bernard Manning and American comedian Lewis Schaffer.

I normally try not to quote from people’s stage acts but, occasionally, Lewis mentions on stage that an Edinburgh Fringe reviewer once called him “mildly racist”.

He says that is the worst of both worlds.

If you are not racist, you do not want to go see a comedian who is mildly racist.

Equally, if you are a racist, you do not want to go see someone who is only mildly racist.

The only solution, Lewis reasons on stage, is that his act should become more racist.

In fact, I do not think Lewis is remotely racist on or off stage. He can be xenophobic on stage, but that is perhaps a sign that he has ‘gone native’ after too many years living in Britain.

On stage, like Jerry Sadowitz, he hates everyone and everything equally.

Misanthropy is his schtick.

I vaguely know another ‘white’ comedian who often plays ‘black’ clubs. I will not name the comedian because of what follows in this blog, but the comedian has talked to me of how he/she can tell jokes about black culture to highly appreciative black audiences. But he/she cannot tell the same jokes to white audiences because the jokes would be seen as appallingly racist.

To black audiences, they are not racist; they are just very funny observational racial jokes.

Interestingly, about ten years ago, Lewis Schaffer had a conversation with Bernard Manning, though they never met.

“It was around 2002,” Lewis tells me. “I’d been in the country for such a short time, it was all a blur to me. I was at the ITN building on Gray’s Inn Road in London and Bernard Manning was in Manchester and they were asking us about offensiveness in comedy.

“I said what I always say, which is that I personally think you should only tell a joke about any ethnic group if you can tell it to their face and they will laugh AND you can tell it when they’re not around and people who are not of that group will not find it offensive.

“Bad comedians are the ones who can tell a joke only when the people they’re making fun of are not in the room – Welsh people are not here. Let’s insult them. 

“That’s bad comedy. Well, not bad. But not the best.

“Good comics can insult you to your face.”

I certainly agree with that. I saw a show at Bernard Manning’s Embassy Club in Manchester in the early 1980s when there was a black couple near the front of the audience. Manning, of course, zeroed in on them as the butt of his jokes and they genuinely loved it. At the end of the show, they were beaming with happiness and excitement; he had made their night.

Another time, there was a honeymoon couple in the audience who foolishly admitted to Manning that they were a honeymoon couple. What they were thinking about, I cannot begin to imagine. He, of course, did every honeymoon and sex gag he could think of throughout the show. Again, they loved it, loved being the centre of attention, loved him (as it were) giving them a hard time.

So I agree with Lewis Schaffer that a good comic can tell racial jokes to people’s faces. A bad comic can only tell those jokes when the relevant people are out of the room.

“But,” says Lewis, “there is another step. A good comic can tell a racial joke to people of that racial group and make them laugh AND he can tell the same joke to people who are not of that ethnic group and make them laugh. If you can’t tell the joke and get laughs when there are no people of that racial group there, then you shouldn’t tell the joke. You should not tell the joke because it will make the audience feel uncomfortable.”

I am not sure I go along with Lewis on this.

If you can tell a black racial joke to black people and they do not find it offensive – if they find it funny – then the joke is not racist, it is racial. If white people find the joke racist, then I think the problem lies in the people not in the joke.

Lewis tells me: “Just because black people are laughing, doesn’t mean you’re allowed to make the racial joke. It doesn’t mean you can tell that joke to an audience of white people. It doesn’t mean you’re going to get a laugh from it. It doesn’t mean they’re not going to hate you.

“If Bernard Manning could tell his jokes to black people who laughed at them, then the jokes were not racist. But that doesn’t mean he could tell them to white people and not be perceived as being racist. So maybe that’s the problem Bernard Manning had and has: that he was and is perceived as being racist. I’m just saying that. I don’t know.

“I said that on the radio and Bernard Manning – I don’t know how he knew this, but he – brilliantly – said, You are going to die skint.

“It was the first time I had ever heard the word ‘skint’ and what he said is totally true.

“Bernard Manning knew he offended people, but he didn’t care, because that’s where the money was in his world.

“With me, I actually care about people’s feelings and that’s not good for business.”

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Day Two of Malcolm Hardee Week – physical threats and censorship

I pity the poor Prime Minister.

Well, maybe “poor” is not the correct word.

But David Cameron was off abroad having a holiday and got dragged back to London because riots were going on.

Then he’s having a holiday in Cornwall and he gets dragged back to London because the Libyan rebels have taken Tripoli.

Totally unnecessary. This is the 21st century. You don’t need to be in any particular place to sort things out. Yesterday, when we were supposed to draw up a shortlist for the Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards at the Edinburgh Fringe – just as important as Libya, I would argue – one of the judges had been dragged back to London to interview someone-or-other; and another was stuck in the wrong part of Edinburgh. But it was simple enough to communicate with each other. And we all half-had ideas from e-mails and accidental meetings in the previous two weeks anyway.

It is all a bit vague. It is the fourth week of the Fringe – or Week Three as it is officially called to maintain the spirit of the Fringe.

Fringeitis has kicked in – a long recognised and largely unavoidable ailment that affects the throats of performers and the brains of hangers-on like me.

Last night, at the second Malcolm Hardee Debate (“Racist or sexist jokes? It doesn’t matter if they’re funny!”) we only had three instead of four participants.

Rab C.Nesbitt creator Ian Pattison had buggered his back in Glasgow and could not make it to Edinburgh.

Viz magazine creator Simon Donald had ‘Fringe throat’, that long-recognised Edinburgh ailment. As did Hardeep Singh Kohli, who had a spoon and a bottle of medicine in his top pocket to ease the throat.

Topping them both, Maureen Younger had been bitten twice by some dodgy Scots beastie (clearly neither cow’rin nor tim’rouson the back of her left leg, behind the knee, so she was filled with anti-histamines and feeling woozy.

None of this was visible on stage, of course. They bubbled and entertained and appeared on top form. Ah! the joys of performance!

I am not in any way a performer, so two nights on the trot on a stage did not fill me with the post-show adrenaline that performers sometimes have. I just felt shagged-out and my brain switched off immediately afterwards.

This could explain why, when two people approached me separately after the shows – one saying he liked this blog and one saying we had been Facebook friends twice (no, I don’t know either) I did not chat at length. Indeed, not at all. I got distracted by other things happening at the end of the show. Oh lord. I do apologise to them.

Fringeitis affects performers’ throats but my brain.

As for the Malcolm Hardee Awards, we nominated thus:

MALCOLM HARDEE AWARD FOR COMIC ORIGINALITY

Doctor Brown for oddness beyond necessity and comedy beyond reason

James Hamilton as the odd writer, producer, director, actor and creator of Casual Violence

Bob Slayer for going beyond OTT into uncharted areas of comedy excess

Johnny Sorrow for simply being a bizarre act Malcolm Hardee would have loved

CUNNING STUNT AWARD (for best Fringe publicity stunt)

Tim FitzHigham for breaking multiple bones and damaging bone marrow to pursue comedy

Kunt and the Gang for pushing his sticky penis stunt way beyond what seemed possible

Sanderson Jones for selling all his show tickets only to people he himself has met

ACT MOST LIKELY TO MAKE A MILLION QUID AWARD

Benet Brandtreth – if he doesn’t make a million on stage, he’ll make it as a lawyer

Josh Widdicombe – possibly the new Michael McIntyre

The shortlist was reported in various media, possibly helped by the fact I put in brief quotes after the acts. Doing that means the press can lift the quotes without having to think anything up. The phrase “for oddness beyond necessity and comedy beyond reason” proved particularly attractive.

The media reporting the Malcolm Hardee Awards shortlist yesterday included BBC News online, which referred to one of the performers as “The act, which we will call KATG”

Kunt and the Gang is going to have problems with that name. The Fringe Society apparently told him that they would only print the name of the act and the show in the Fringe Programme if he put an umlaut over the ‘u’ in Kunt.

That is the least of Kunt’s problems. A press release from his promoters this morning was headed:

AWARD NOMINATION COULD COST COMEDIAN (KATG) THOUSANDS OF £££

It is not really my/our fault…!

Edinburgh Council is still threatening him with a £3,000 fine if any more ‘cock stickers’ appear on other shows’ posters.

One agent sent him an invoice for a four-figure sum for damage to one Scottish act’s posters with the mild threat: “I would also recommend this invoice is paid immediately and discreetly as if it is not I will make my actions known to all the other producers affected and you can then expect a lot more of these and some from people who will be far more forceful that I will be thru the law in order to recoup.”

In reply, Kunt’s admirable PR people say he will “happily reveal the name of the Comedy Agent and send you a copy of the Comedy Invoice in return for a donation to the Cock Aid appeal. Details on request.”

There is also the unreported fact that one prominent London-based promoter has made physical threats of “sending the boys in” to sort out Kunt. And it is not even the one promoter you might assume would say this.

Various acts are now, to show support to Kunt, wearing cock stickers. I am particularly impressed by the one sported by Frank Sanazi.

At the time of writing this, the Third Reich’s favourite crooner is in London performing pre-booked gigs but he will be returning to Edinburgh on Friday, solely to appear in the highly-prestigious Malcolm Hardee Awards Show.

The Malcolm Hardee Awards Show is 10.00pm to midnight in the ballroom of The Counting House as part of the Laughing Horse Free Festival – no tickets, free admission – Friday 26th August.

The Edinburgh Fringe is about shameless promotion.

Now I had better prepare for the two days of spaghetti-juggling events I perhaps foolishly decided to put on outdoors Outside the Beehive Inn in the Grassmarket… 6.15-7.00pm tonight and tomorrow…

It is looking like it might rain…

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At the Edinburgh Fringe, Paco Erhard is a German comic, not a comic German

(A version of this blog was published in the November 2011 edition of Mensa Magazine)

Paco Erhard is performing a comedy show at the Edinburgh Fringe called 5-Step Guide to Being German. We drank English breakfast tea at Fringe Central this week.

“There is an English obsession with Germany,” he told me, “but I think it’s getting less and less. It’s more or less the media who keep it going.”

When I met him, he had just got his first review for his show – a 4-star review – but, the previous day, he told me his show had not been successful –

“I didn’t do as well as I could.

“I am a German. Germany has got an inferiority/superiority complex. We basically have this feeling that nobody likes us and we have to stick together but we are better than everybody thinks we are. So, out of that inferiority complex comes a feeling of superiority and we have had that for too long. Germany has to change.

“As a kid, you don’t know what or who you are,” he told me. “Germany is a baby nation. Our country was just pieced together in 1871 and we don’t know who we are.

“The English are like the Germans. They no longer know who they are – the British Empire has gone; they can’t define who they are. The Scots are like the Bavarians. The Scots know very well who they are, what their traditions are and I would love Scottish-type patriotism for Germany. It’s a positive, very inviting patriotism.

“I like Scotland. I like America – I like how positive they are.

“I studied Literature and Philosophy at the German equivalent of the Open University, so I could travel. I lived in America when I was 17 and loved it – North Carolina – very friendly people and I watched lots of stand-up comedy on TV. That is where it started for me. I think it was more or less the year Bill Hicks died.

“I tried to be a writer for a long time but that meant I just stayed in trying to write and never went out meeting people I could write about. I was not quite normal. I got wrapped up in what I wanted the writing to mean rather than just telling a story.

“I did the whole writing thing until I was in Valencia when I saw an ad for a hotel entertainer in Magaluf and thought, Fuck it. That’s what I’m going to do.

“When I was in Majorca, I realised I liked being on stage and met my girlfriend of the time who was British. She had lived in Tenerife and persuaded me to do some compering and comedy there for British audiences there who were not, on average, all that clever. Wonderful people and I really enjoyed compering for them but, whenever I tried my stand-up, if I made any reference to anything that was outside Jordan and The X-Factor, they did not get very much out of it.

“If you add in a lot of racism and a bit of sexism, then you have a good comedy act for Tenerife. And insult people all the time.”

So did he add in racism and sexism?

“Well,” he told me, “I went to borderline things where I thought, I can still live with saying this and feel morally OK with it and not hate myself. But there was some stuff I could never have done with a clean conscience. It was not that terrible, but I would not like doing it for a long period.”

And did he get a lot of stick from predominantly English audiences for being German?

“Oh yeah, plenty! Sometimes I would say to someone in the front row: Don’t worry. Being German is not contagious: it’s not like you’re going to wake up at five in the morning with an incredible urge to invade Poland…

But, often, if I said that, the audience just sat there puzzled because, as my girlfriend explained to me, they had no idea what Poland had to do with anything. These were not 18 year-olds; they were all older people but, to them, the Second World War was just England v Germany and England won 5-1.

“I had lots of material I could never do and so, just over two years ago, I came to London to do ‘proper’ comedy. And, of course, my selling-point in Britain is that I am a German.

“There came a point when I came back from America when I saw my country from the outside for the first time and I started to not want to be German at all. I felt I was German but different. I was born in Munich but moved eight or nine times as a kid, so I saw how various parts of Germany are so different from each other.

“We do have a sense of humour but there’s a much bigger internal division between the different states and between people’s behaviour in public and in private than in any other country I know of. There is the personality you have in private and the face you show to the outside world. In the workplace, there’s no place for humour or screwing around. In private, you can be a completely different person.

“In Germany, there’s a lot you can hate and love at the same time, like the whole order thing. The precision is great, but sometimes you think Just relax. Let go.

“I was at a wedding in Hamburg a few months back – my girlfriend’s friends – and the father of the bride was told I was a comedian and he tensed up. He thought I would go round later making jokes about it and anarchistically destroy everything that he saw as beautiful.

“I think in Germany, there’s a fear of chaos. Humour is great, but it has its place; it is dangerous if there is too much because it might just corrode everything.

“That’s what I love about Britain. Things are more relaxed.

“Here in Britain, I want to be a comedian first and a German second. I do not want to be a comic German. I want German to be the adjective and the noun to be Comic.

A few days after our chat, Paco got a second review for his show – there had been a reviewer in the day before our chat – he had seen the show which Paco knew had not worked well – the show in which, Paco told me, “I didn’t do as well as I could.”

The Broadway Baby reviewer gave Paco Erhard’s 5-Step Guide to Being German a 5-star review.

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Lewis Schaffer and the unreported theft of all his Edinburgh Fringe jokes

“You haven’t been to that Scientology place on South Bridge, have you?” I asked Lewis Schaffer. “They call it the Hubbard Academy of Personal Independence, presumably so people don’t know it’s Scientology.”

“No,” he replied.

Well something strange has happened to him.

American stand-up comic Lewis Schaffer is a former Malcolm Hardee Cunning Stunt Award winner and no wonder – he just can’t stop attracting publicity.

This last week, he did a double whammy.

On Thursday, the genuinely very amiable and charming comedy agent Brett Vincent used Twitter to accuse Lewis Schaffer of stealing a joke.

Brett tweeted:

“Hey @LewisSchaffer – I have heard from 3 sources that the first joke in your show is 15 minutes in and its a Ben Hurley gag from 2006? True?”

New Zealand comedian Ben Hurley is one of Brett’s acts.

The gag was: ‘’I lost a good friend in the World Trade Center. I remember telling my friend: Mohammed, stay in flight school! Practice the landings!’

Lewis says he had actually come up with the gag himself straight after the 9/11 terror attacks:

“I have fond memories,” he said in a press release, “of telling the joke in early 2002. It’s the joke that got me banned from Jongleurs. I brought the joke back this year because of the ten year anniversary of 9/11 to remind me of all the good times… A comedian is judged by how soon he or she makes a joke about a tough subject. For instance, I made the very first joke about Madeleine McCann’s disappearance – the day before I kidnapped her. Maybe that was too soon.”

I had tea with Lewis Schaffer at Fringe Central in Edinburgh yesterday afternoon and it was not the spat with ever-affable Brett Vincent which was obsessing him. No, it was the fact that he was living in the Now.

“I am living in the Now,” he told me. “It’s all good.”

“You’re saying meaningless things again,” I told him. “You’re being very American.”

“No I’m not, John. I’m living in the Now.”

That’s when I asked him: “You haven’t been to that Scientology place on South Bridge, have you?”

“No,” he replied.

“So why,” I asked, “have you suddenly decided to live in the Now?

“Because I realised I’m 54 years old. I have too much shit going on in my life. I have more past than I have future. When you’re 20, you can live in the past because you don’t have much of a past. Now I’m gridlocked. My Now is that I have a show to do but I’m sitting here with you. I’m not even worried about my show in half an hour.

“It’s going good because I’m living in the Now. I’m not going to remember the bad things that have happened to me. I only know that right now is good.”

“And Now is good?” I asked.

“Yes. I got a review today which said my show was over in a flash. Well, it must have been good if it seemed to be over in a flash. Only good shit is over in a flash. Bad shit goes on and on and on. Name anything bad that’s over in a flash besides premature ejaculation.”

“So it’s all good now?” I asked again.

“I had my bag stolen yesterday.”

“Is that good?”

“That’s bad. It had all my jokes in it. I had all the jokes for my show stolen. I was flyering yesterday and I left my joke book in my bag outside and someone stole it. Well, it wasn’t a book, it was a sheet… sheets.. And it had the money from my show. It’s the second year in a row this has happened, though I don’t know how I remember that, because I am living in the Now.

“Every year I make a list. You remember my lists, John? In 2009 it was

“I am not shambolic.

“I don’t hate the audience.

“I don’t think this country is completely shit.

“Discussions confuse people.

“I know Madeleine McCann is not as important to others as she is to me.

“I lost all those lists, all of them; they were in my bag; four years worth of lists. I lost them. Maybe that’s good. They were in the past. Maybe I have to do a new list because now I’m living in the Now.”

“Have you reported it?” I asked.

‘You can’t report it.”

“Of course you can. Someone might find it. It’s the sort of crime where they steal the bag, take the cash and then they throw the bag aw…”

“But,” Lewis interrupted, “They would read the notes and the jokes inside the bag and say to themselves This is Lewis Schaffer’s bag – and they might have given all my jokes to Ben Hurley.”

But you don’t need a list of jokes,” I said, trying to be positive. “You don’t tell jokes; you tell stories with jokes in them.”

“I tell jokes!” Lewis complained.

“But if you can remember the stories,” I persisted, “you’ll remember the jokes. You have been doing your show twice weekly in London for the last year. You’ll remember the jokes because you know the stories.”

“I live in the Now,” Lewis told me. “Those stories were yesterday’s stories. How can I remember them in the Now? You know how critical the reviewers are: they only want to see new jokes. They don’t want to hear my Award-winning Holocaust joke again.”

“It’s the best Holocaust joke I’ve ever heard,” I told him.

“You said that already,” Lewis mumbled. “I have to do a show in half an hour and I have lost my book of jokes. Well, my sheets of jokes; and notes; and my lists.”

He became very serious. He looked me in the eyes:

“What would you – John Fleming – do if someone said to you You have to be on stage in half an hour and do an hour-long comedy show?… Would you think to yourself: I’m shit because I didn’t prepare?… No you wouldn’t, because you didn’t know you had to prepare.

“That’s what I feel about my life. I didn’t know I had to prepare.

“No-one told me. When I was crawling out of my mother’s vagina, no-one told me I had to prepare for an Edinburgh Fringe show. Did you know it was coming? I didn’t know. It’s not as if it’s an annual event. They just spring it on you!”

I looked at Lewis.

“I don’t remember the past,” Lewis said, looking me in the eye, very seriously. “I am living in the Now.”

I said at the beginning of this blog that something strange has happened to Lewis Schaffer.

I take it all back.

He is the same.

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The Edinburgh Fringe debate about sexist and racial – maybe racist – jokes

I admired the late Bernard Manning as a comedian.

And, unlike many who criticised him, I saw him perform live.

I blogged about this in January and got a lot of negative feedback.

But I think many anti-Bernard Manning sentiments are knee-jerk reactions. People dislike him because they know they are supposed to dislike him.

The comedian, musician and writer John Dowie contributed a very interesting short story to the Sit-Down Comedy anthology which the late Malcolm Hardee and I commissioned and edited for Random House in 2003. His Help Me Make It Through the Night is basically a fictional story about a right-on early Ben Elton type alternative comedian and an old school Bernard Manning style comedian… written sympathetically from the point of view of the Bernard Manning character.

The story was written for the book by John Dowie after he and I had a discussion about Bernard Manning and surprisingly found a lot of common ground. Indeed, I think we agreed that we both admired him as a technically brilliant comedian; and it helped that we had both lived through the period when Manning was having his greatest success.

John Dowie is (in my opinion) a notable left-wing thinker; we are not talking a Daily Mail reader here.

I mentioned in yesterday’s blog that I am chairing a couple of debates in Malcolm Hardee Week (the last week of the current Edinburgh Fringe).

On Tuesday 23rd August, the proposition is:

RACIST OR SEXIST JOKES? IT DOESN’T MATTER IF THEY’RE FUNNY!

It is perhaps not the most original of ideas for a debate, but it is never not irrelevant and I felt it still has a lot of proverbial mileage left in it. The phrasing and punctuation of the debate’s title can be taken to represent either viewpoint:

RACIST OR SEXIST JOKES? IT DOESN’T MATTER IF THEY’RE FUNNY!

I did invite Jim Davidson to take part in this debate (through his agent) without payment. He is taking part in the Guardian-sponsored Edinburgh International Television Festival at the end of the week reflecting, according to the programme, “on the industry that loved him, supported him but ultimately rejected him, as he discusses the changing nature of acceptability in comedy and television as a whole”.

His agent said Jim was unable to be in Edinburgh on Tuesday 23rd for the Malcolm Hardee Debate because he is on tour – playing Great Yarmouth on the Monday night and Weymouth on the Wednesday night.

I have no idea if it is just impractical (it sure ain’t easy) or because there was no money in it or because he just did not fancy doing it. All are perfectly reasonable.

It is a pity – but much in life is, like the fact choc ices are fattening.

I have never met Jim Davidson and have never seen his live act (television, in this case, does not count). I have asked people who have worked with him what he is like and opinion is varied. I have no personal opinion on him.

Prejudice is not something I admire and, by that, I mean judging people without really genuinely knowing what you are talking about. It is a comic irony that people who say you should never believe what you read in newspapers and magazines nor on the internet – and you should never believe edited video clips out of context – often do.

So I am prepared to believe Jim Davidson is a shit; but I am also prepared to believe he is misunderstood and misrepresented. Jimmy Carr, a brilliant comic whom I have seen and whom I do admire, has also been accused of telling racist jokes. To which I say Bollocks.

Admittedly, even if I did think Jim Davidson were a shit, I would put him on to get bums on seats and to let him defend himself (equal factors in my mind).

I think the line-up on 23rd August without him is still very good:

Simon Donald, co-founder of Viz magazine, who has now re-invented himself as a stand-up comedian.

Hardeep Singh Kohli, sometime presenter on BBC1’s The One Show and columnist for Scotland on Sunday newspaper.

Ian Pattison, creator and writer of the culturally phenomenal BBC TV series Rab C.Nesbitt.

And Maureen Younger, the astonishingly well-travelled London-Scottish comedian who hosts all-female Laughing Cows comedy gigs in London, Birmingham, Berlin etc.

If you are in Edinburgh on Tuesday 23rd August…

RACIST OR SEXIST JOKES? IT DOESN’T MATTER IF THEY’RE FUNNY!

at The Hive, 6.15-7.00pm.

It is part of the Free Festival – so it is free unless you want to throw appreciative money in a bucket at the end, in which case it is for charity; 100% goes to the Mama Biashara charity.

Don’t pre-judge it.

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In defence of racial jokes, Bernard Manning and Jimmy Carr but not this British Asian bloke I saw

(This blog later appeared on Chortlethe UK comedy industry website)

I once put on a show at the Hackney Empire theatre in London where a top-name comic refused to introduce or be on stage with comedian Jimmy Carr because, in the preceding week, Jimmy had been much criticised in the press for jokes about gypsies. Especially one gag:

“The male gypsy moth can smell the female gypsy moth up to seven miles away – and that fact also works if you remove the word ‘moth’.”

I had no problem with Jimmy Carr nor with the joke. Told in his particular dead-pan persona, it is a beautifully-crafted joke. From some other comic, it could have been very ethnically offensive. From the Jimmy Carr on-stage character, it did not seem to me to be offensive. It is/was a joke.

In a Guardian interview in 2006, Jimmy said, “If you’re doing wordplay, there is no real place to take offence. It’s like taking offence at a crossword puzzle… People don’t come and see my show and go, ‘That’s what he thinks’.”

I think if the late Bernard Manning’s live act – much attacked by knee-jerk PC supporters who never saw it – were performed today, word-for-word, by Jimmy Carr or Jerry Sadowitz, then trendy journalists would give it a four or five star review. Because they don’t believe (despite the gypsy jokes) that Jimmy Carr or Jerry Sadowitz are actually themselves bigoted.

But people do believe in retrospect and without having seen and heard him deliver jokes live on stage, that Bernard Manning’s live act was racist. Because they’ve read or heard other people say it’s a fact.

I did see Bernard Manning perform live three times. He was very funny. I also once had lunch with him. It seemed to me he had a bit of a superiority complex – he thought he was a bit better than the other Northern Comics of the time – but then he probably was. And he was very funny in a hard-edged, cynical way not un-reminiscent of the current Jimmy Carr on-stage persona.

The first time I saw Bernard perform live, at his own Embassy Club in Manchester, was probably in the early 1980s. It was one of the slickest professional shows I have ever seen in my life, performed in tacky, glittery decor like a cheap Hong Kong Christmas party that Butlins had staged for holiday campers in the mid 1950s.

The room was filled with ordinary down-market punters who clearly seldom went out and were be-suited and dolled-up for their Big Night Out. The only comparable thing I’ve seen was a Sunday night show at a Masonic hall in Easterhouse, Glasgow, which felt like it was set in South Vietnam circa 1968. The exterior (the walls were topped with barbed wire & broken glass) and location of the venue (a lone building in the middle of what felt like and very possibly was a free-fire zone) looked like something out of Escape From New York and the punters were middle-aged blue-rinsed women in over-tight sparkly dresses and dark-suited men looking uncomfortable wearing tightly-collared shirts and seldom-used ties.

What struck me about Bernard Manning’s act at the Embassy Club in Manchester for his very mainstream, very middle-of-the-road, probably Labour-voting but very conservative early-1980s audience was that, for the first third of the act, he used the word “cunt” very liberally. It was all over the place. This was at a time when the word was unacceptable in alternative comedy shows (which were only barely starting) and never heard on feature films, let alone in straight middle-of-the-road live punter shows. The use of the word “cunt” tailed-off after the first third of the act and had disappeared entirely by the final third.

It only struck me the next day that this was part of Bernard’s professionalism.

The show had been due to start at 8.00pm.

At 30 seconds before 8.00pm, Bernard appeared on stage and briefly introduced the first act. There then followed competent singers, competent comics. Nothing hyper-special. But satisfying. There were two breaks. In one, there was a charity raffle. In the other, chicken-in-a-basket. Throughout the show (as was the way with Northern clubs) you could order drinks at your table and there was a constant flow of staff bringing drinks from the bar to tables. It was a visible money-making machine and the paying punters got value -for-money. They got what they paid for.

At the climax of the show, they got Bernard Manning doing his stand-up act – he was the one they had come to see – and they expected his act to be rude and shocking. That was why they had come. He delivered. It was cunt-this and cunt-that and cunt-the-other at the start. After he had established the act was rude and shocking, he just got on with good, solid gags and had no need to say “cunt”. He had delivered what they expected and, next day, those punters would be able to tell their friends and workmates: “Ooh, our Bernard, he were so rude. It were proper dirty.”

Even there, I am perpetuating a stereotype.

The second time I saw Bernard perform live, there was a young honeymoon couple in the very front row who foolishly admitted the fact to him. He, of course, went for sexual jokes throughout. They loved it. At the same show, there was a black couple in the audience. He went for them as well. They loved it. Afterwards, they were laughing and joking with him.

I also saw him make anti-Semitic jokes.

He was part-Jewish.

I have seen the brilliant Jerry Sadowitz make what most people would consider anti-Semitic jokes.

He is Jewish.

The London-based New York comic Lewis Schaffer tells the best Holocaust joke I have ever heard.

He is Jewish.

Recently, I saw a new-ish comic, a British Asian, make an anti-Indian joke.

It should have felt OK – like a Jew telling a Jewish joke against Jews – but, to me, it felt racist.

It is relevant that he is a new-ish comic.

It’s the way they tell ’em.

A joke is a joke is a joke.

It’s the way it’s told that makes it funny. Or racist.

There is a difference between racial and racist jokes.

The sign of a non-racist society is that anyone can be the butt of a good joke.

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Filed under Comedy, Racism, Theatre