Tag Archives: Laura Lexx

Edinburgh Fringe latest – BBC Studios slag-off live comedy + a secret new gig

Up at the Edinburgh Fringe, anything and everything is possible…

Michael Livesley – after and before

I am not up at the Edinburgh Fringe, but feedback is starting to trickle in.

First-timer Michael Livesley, Half The Man in a comedy show at The Free Sisters about how he lost half his body weight and much else, emailed me, saying:

“The first night went well. No idea what to expect but my hope is to emerge from the Fringe battle-hardened and ready for the next chapter next year.”

Doyenne of comedy critics Kate Copstick released the first of her Slaughtered podcasts at this year’s Fringe…

The original President Obonjo cast a pod

…In it, she interviewed controversial man-of-the-moment President Obonjo (Goodbye Mr President at the Voodoo Rooms) and she revealed that a BBC Studios executive – not unconnected with ripping-off President Obonjo – speaking in his official role as a BBC Studios producer – told her: “Live comedy isn’t as important as it thinks it is”.

More of this in a future blog.

Meanwhile, blonde bombshell (she will hate that) and social/sexual campaigner Samantha Pressdee – according to the aforementioned Kate Copstick, “almost certainly the most uninhibitedly entertaining proponent of female empowerment you will see” contacted me to say: “The recruitment campaign for the Barmy Army has started.”

Samantha’s dossier aims “to ignite potential”

When I saw the last of the London previews for Samantha’s Fringe show Covered (directed by award-winning Phil Nichol), she gave me a ‘Dossier’ aimed to “ignite potential in the 1 in 4 people who will experience mental health issues.”

At that point, she had already signed-up comedy performers Juliette Burton, Dave Chawner, Laura Lexx, nutritionist Michelle Aucutt and life coach Andrea Bradley.

Now, at the just-started Fringe, Samantha tells me: “On my second night, I am proud to say every audience member signed up and received their copy of Uncovered: The Dossier.

Tony Slattery and Samantha Pressdee bonding in Edinburgh

“I also met my hero Tony Slattery. He is so inspiring. I told him, “I’m bipolar too,” and he replied: Nice to meet you both.

“He was even more lovely in person than he is online which is VERY lovely. He gave me loads of cuddles and his email address. I hope to get him involved in my Pulling It Together project. I am also adopting him as an uncle.”

The gaffer-taped Fringe shoes

She continued: “I brought 13 pairs of shoes to Edinburgh (none of them sensible). So it was not as big a tragedy as it might have been that I broke one shoe on arrival at my venue’s press launch (PQA Venues @ Riddle’s Court).

“You cannot,” she says, “even tell that it is now secured thanks to the magic of gaffer tape.”

The preview of her show which I saw in London was preceded by a video which included – blink and you miss it – a clip of her yolk-covered appearance in the annual Russian Egg Roulette Championships at the Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards show.

Until 2017, this show took place annually around midnight on the final Friday of the Fringe in the Ballroom of The Counting House (programmed by the Laughing Horse Free Festival).

Bizarrely – and surely a coincidence, given that the Malcolm Hardee Awards ended in 2017 – I hear that there has been a sudden change of schedule at midnight on the final Friday of this year’s Fringe with an un-named potentially two-hour show being shoe-horned into the Counting House Ballroom.

The Edinburgh Fringe is always full of surprises and there are another three weeks to go…

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Comic Laura Lexx – a comedian/writer who could be on the cusp of success…

The last time comic writer and performer Laura Lexx was in this blog was back in July 2015 when she was about to stage her first solo Edinburgh Fringe show.

Laura Lexx, when last espied in this blog in 2015…

This week, she will be starting the run of her fourth solo Fringe show Knee Jerk at the Gilded Balloon venue.

I think her career turned an important corner with her appearance on BBC TV’s Live at the Apollo show last Christmas. So I asked her about it.


“London is probably the place I gig least” (Photograph by Karla Gowlett)

JOHN: Success is strange in comedy…

LAURA: Yes, it’s weird. You look at someone and think: Well, they seem to be doing very well, yet no-one’s ever heard of them. But they’re doing a 110-date UK tour, so people HAVE heard of them, yet TV isn’t… it isn’t doing… Well we still have TV held up as ‘the thing’ and actually maybe it isn’t ‘the thing’ any more.

JOHN: People say the live comedy ‘circuit’ is dying.

LAURA: Shut up! No it isn’t! I gig six nights a week quite happily all round the country – there are loads of gigs everywhere; there just aren’t the big chains of gigs (like Jongleurs) any more. You have to know lots of individuals and get on with it. London is probably the place I gig least.

JOHN: Really? Why?

LAURA: It pays absolute dogshit. Apart from the Comedy Store, I don’t think I know a single other London club that pays more than £200 a night.

JOHN: Whereas, if you play, say, up North…?

LAURA: Yeah… £250, £240, £220.

JOHN: With accommodation?

LAURA: Sometimes, yeah.

JOHN: Transport?

LAURA: Not usually.

JOHN: Your Live at the Apollo appearance must have got you loads of online hits and a higher profile.

LAURA: Kinda. It did. But I got way more general public interest and followers from doing Ouch on BBC Sounds because of my set on mental health.

JOHN: Why?

LAURA: I think because all the stuff I did on mental health and more niche topics at the Apollo recording got edited-out of the final cut. You do 20 minutes and they edit it down to around 8. What was left was a funny but mainstream thing which didn’t have much shareable viability online.

Whereas the stuff I did on Ouch about not having children and climate change and eco-anxiety did have shareability online and I picked up thousands of followers from that.

JOHN: So a niche subject actually got you greater hits than a mainstream TV show.

LAURA: Yeah. I guess cos there’s less of it and you’re maybe saying something people haven’t heard before.

JOHN: And, of course, on the Apollo show, all the niche stuff was quite reasonably edited out. It’s a mainstream show and…

Live at the Apollo – the Christmas Special show, 2018, with (L-R) Gary Delaney, Sarah Millican, Laura Lexx and Ahir Shah

LAURA: Why reasonably, though? It was just as funny as the other stuff. It just happened to be on the night Ahir Shah also had a joke about anti-depressants and you couldn’t really have two comedians on (LAUGHS) the Christmas Special going on about anti-depressants. Which is OK. That’s up to the producers. It was not like they were censoring talk on mental health. We just both happened to cover it.

JOHN: It’s a very mainstream programme.

LAURA: But depression is mainstream. Lots of people have depression, so why not talk about it?

JOHN: It’s a bit depressing.

LAURA: Not if you’re doing it in comedy.

JOHN: I think you are maybe at a turning point in your career.

LAURA: Well, most of the general public have no idea who I am, so I can turn up at a comedy club at a weekend and be ‘surprisingly’ good. But now people in the industry know who I am, so I can do the things I want to do more easily and get booked in the gigs I want to be booked on. And pitching ideas is much easier now… And I think I’ve learned to be cleverer with that.

JOHN: How does one get to be a successful pitcher?

LAURA: Well, I haven’t had any success yet but I think what I’ve learned is to go to the Edinburgh Fringe already having written the stuff that people are going to want off the back of my show.

“Feminism, innit, John. It’s huge” (Photograph by Karla Gowlett)

Every time you do an Edinburgh Fringe show in August, you sit down in meetings in September and they say: “Oh, we liked that theme. We would like an outline for a thing on that theme”… and, by the time you have written that outline, they have changed jobs and gone somewhere else.

JOHN: Whereas, this year…?

LAURA: I have a big set-piece about netball and I have already written a show about netball.

JOHN: Why netball?

LAURA: Feminism, innit, John… It’s huge at the moment.

JOHN: Is it?

LAURA: Yes. The Netball World Cup.

JOHN: How do you make a netball show funny?

LAURA: Anything can be funny. You just need a vehicle to add funny characters to. So why not a netball team?

JOHN: So you have that eternal ambition of comics: to eventually write a sitcom?

LAURA: I’ve already done it. I’ve written one; I’m starting my second one; and I’m pitching a couple of… I have one entertainment magazine show project that I think might be on the verge of being optioned. And another idea I’m really only at the research end of, which is… (DETAILS CENSORED IN CASE SOMEONE STEALS THE IDEA!). I also have an idea for a podcast…

JOHN: There’s no money in them…

LAURA: No, but they’re really good for exposure and then you sell off the back of it. Podcasts are a massive way to boost your popularity. My idea is… (IDEA CENSORED AGAIN, TO PROTECT IT!)

JOHN: There’s a lot of politics around at the moment: Brexit and all. You told me your new Fringe show Knee Jerk is a bit political.

Knee Jerk – Laura road-tested her new comedy show before its Fringe run at the Gilded Balloon

LAURA: I’m not trying to be political like the ins-and-outs of politicians; I’m trying to be political in terms of people’s behaviour to each other, which is what I’m interested in. The general premise of the show is I want to deal with climate change and I feel climate change should be our priority as a species and as a nation and it feels like we are at what is hopefully more a death rattle than a resurgence of a lot of divisive stuff between the general public.

JOHN: Doesn’t everyone agree climate change is a bad thing?

LAURA: But who’s dealing with it properly? If a human army was invading, we would have a million measures in place. Here, we’re vaguely going: “Oh, we’ve asked this company to maybe try and do this by 2028… if they can…” And then we fail on all the targets.

JOHN: You are odd in that you’re a good stand-up AND a good MC. They are often different mindsets.

LAURA: Well, I think they’re two different jobs and I quite like them both.

JOHN: There is that cliché of a punter saying to an MC after the gig has finished: “You should try doing stand-up comedy yourself.”

LAURA: Oh God! That happened all the time! That’s why I stopped MCing as much as I was. For a while, I was MCing for maybe 80% of my gigs. I just maybe got a bit frustrated by not being able to do my act. I had all these new bits of material I wanted to get out of the box and play with and, as an MC, I couldn’t really. So I pared it back a bit and now I’m a lot happier and I think I’m a better MC for not doing it all the time.

I like gigging and writing stuff. I’m a club comic that has smashed Edinburgh too. (LAUGHS) So give me my own television show, already!… I might have a sandwich now. Do you want a sandwich?

…Laura’s new 2019 Edinburgh Fringe show…

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Lovely Laura Lexx and pig-faced Joz Norris: comics who won’t tell me things

Laura Lexx

“Why is this going to be your first Edinburgh Fringe show?” I asked comedian Laura Lexx yesterday.

“Because I’ve never wanted to do one before.”

“What’s it called?”

Lovely.”

“What’s it about?’

“It’s about not really having any problems to write an Edinburgh show about, because my dad’s not dead and I don’t come from a shit-hole with a high pregnancy rate. So I can’t write the usual Edinburgh Fringe debut show jokes about being from a chavvy area.”

“No heroin, rape or other traumatic personal stories at all?” I asked.

Laura Lexx. Is the cup half full or empty?

Laura his week – Do you see the cup half full or half empty?

“Never happened to me,” lamented Laura. “My parents are still together; they don’t have a regional accent that’s hilarious; and I don’t look like the love child of anybody and anybody else. So, in Fringe terms, I don’t have anything to write about. My show is really about being quite happy and being quite fortunate. I feel like I’m breaking all the Fringe rules.”

“So instead?” I asked.

“It’s about comparing my life either to other people in the world or to animals and realising that whatever is kind of difficult for me is really not much to complain about if you put it into context.”

Laura and I then talked at length about some of the content of her show.

“But,” she then said, “you can’t talk about that bit in your blog. Because the whole show hinges on that, although you can mention me shitting myself at Disneyland in Paris. Then I meet a tiny bird that has an even harder love life than me. You can talk about the tiny bird. Do you want to see the poster?”

“Can I mention the poster in the blog?”

“Yes”.

Laura Lexx poster with the flying whale cut off

Laura Lexx poster with the flying whale cut off for no reason

“Can I say what your name is?”

“Yes.”

“Look,” said Laura. “The poster has penguins, owls and a killer whale.”

“A killer whale?” I asked. “Where?”

“There.”

“Oh yes,” I said. “It is a very small killer whale and it is flying. Lovely.”

“Yes,” said Laura.

“Why is there an airborne killer whale on the poster?” I asked.

“Because sometimes I talk about killer whales.”

“In the show?”

“No.”

“The poster says you are sponsored by Imodium, the relief for diarrhoea.”

“Yes. Because of my story about pooping myself at Disneyland. And because I talk about irritable bowel syndrome.”

“Is that,” I asked, “not going against the general flow of happiness in the show?”

“There is,” said Laura, “no ‘against the flow’ when you have irritable bowel syndrome. I do have IBS but, when you put that up against something like leukaemia or brittle bone disease…

“… or being French…” I suggested.

“I like France,” said Laura.

“Are there songs in the show?” I asked.

“No.”

“How am I going to write a blog about this?” I asked. “Are you absolutely sure you have never been addicted to heroin or run off to Syria to be a member of ISIS?”

“Sorry, no… I even like my mother,” lamented Laura.

There was a long pause, then Laura brightened up.

Laura Lexx at the Comedians’ Cricket Match in 2011

Laura at the Comedians’ Cricket Match in 2011

“l tell you,” she said. “Here you go… Here’s something… I’ve finished writing my novel – it’s taken four or five years and, as soon as I get back home from the Fringe, we’re filming a taster scene of it, so I’ve got a cast together to do a 5-minute preview and I’m working on the pilot for a sitcom pitch and then I’m gonna do a radio equivalent for it. That’s probably going to take up my main focus after the Fringe.”

“Why didn’t you mention this before?” I asked.

“I forgot.”

“You forgot?”

“I forgot.”

“What is the novel about?”

“It’s about the end of the world, but nobody has died.”

“Surely,” I said, “the end of the world, by definition, involves a certain amount of collateral damage?”

“You would think so,” said Laura. “Except it turns out not to be the end of the world. It is just that Jesus has paused things in this particular village, because it needs work.”

“But,” I said, “I am guessing I can’t mention this because that’s the end of the novel?”

“It’s the beginning of the novel,” said Laura. “It’s about a hapless group of West Country villagers who are dealing with the end of the world… And then Jesus turns up and has to try and fix things before the Devil wins.”

“Is the Prophet Mohammed involved?” I asked.

“No.”

“There could be publicity value in it,” I suggested.

Laura Lexx insisted on the teapot shot - nothing to do with me

Laura Lexx suggested this teapot shot – nothing to do with me

“He might be in the illustrations,” Laura mused.

“There are illustrations?” I asked.

“No. But if you want to do any… I am looking for a publisher.”

That conversation took place yesterday at the Soho Theatre Bar in London.

Today in the Soho Theatre, I talked to comedian Joz Norris.

Joz Norris (left) in Shambles

Joz Norris (left) shows acting talent in Shambles, Series 2

“The reason I got in touch with you,” he explained, “was to mention the Shambles web series that I’m in. “Harry Deansway made it. He told me: Plug it, Joz. Get people to see it.” And I thought I would talk to you about it, because you are increasingly prestigious. So I told Harry: Good news, Harry, I’m going to talk to the increasingly prestigious John Fleming about it. And Harry immediately banned me from saying anything about it. He says he doesn’t want any discussion of it at all.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Harry says he doesn’t want any spoilers. He says he thinks there is too little mystery in comedy these days. He says everyone’s so busy trying to plug everything and reveal all the secrets going on in it, it spoils the product. He says I can mention it and ask people to watch it, but you are not allowed to say anything about it.”

“About what?” I asked.

“You can’t trick me into talking about it,” said Joz. I think I am allowed to tell you the title Shambles and then hopefully people will just Google that. But Harry insists there should be no actual discussion of it at all. So the main thing you and I were going to chat about I am not allowed to.

Jox Norris trying to please everyone all of the time

Jox Norris tries to please everyone all the time

“Harry also said he was sad I had not recommended a show of his in a Q&A I did with the British Comedy Guide, so I thought maybe we could just talk about Harry’s show instead. That way, I’m still helping him out and giving him some good buzz, but I am not spoiling the secrets of his web series that he doesn’t want spoiled.”

“So what are you doing at the Edinburgh Fringe in two weeks?” I asked.

“I’m doing a show called Hey Guys!”

“If,” I said, “we are not going to talk about your web series and we’re not going to talk about your Edinburgh show…”

“Why can’t we talk about my Edinburgh show?”

“We have already, haven’t we?”

“Not really.”

“OK,” I said. “What are the forty words that sell it in the Fringe Programme?”

“I think it says something about being a pig-rat. The children I work with call me Pig-Rat.”

“Why?”

Joz displays his nostrils

Joz proudly displays allegedly porcine nostrils

“I have the nose of a pig – I have quite flared nostrils – and I have quite a weird, ratty mouth. But what I don’t like about my face is the combination of my mouth and my eyes. I think it’s jarring.”

“If,” I asked, “you have the nose of a pig and the mouth of a rat, where are your eyes from?”

“I have my dad’s eyes.”

“Which one of us is going to say it?” I asked.

“What?”

When does your dad want them back?

“Oh,” said Joz, “that will be one of the witty quips you throw into your blogs.”

There was a pause.

“It’s a very good show,” said Joz.

“What is?” I asked.

Joz’s Edinburgh poster image

Joz apparently has cheeks which are over-sensitive to lights

Hey Guys!,” said Joz.

“Have you seen it?” I asked.

“I filmed a preview and then I watched that… I admit I have not seen it live.”

“Are you going to see it live?”.

“I don’t think I’m going to be able to because, every time I’m performing it, I’m always tied-up working and can’t get time off to be in the audience.”

“It is one of the eternal crosses a performer has to bear,” I said.

“I suppose so,” said Joz.

“Do you want another tea?” I asked.

“Not really,” said Joz. “Shall we just have a chat, as I can’t talk about anything?”

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The Green Party diversifies into comedy Newspeak & Doublethink over women

Lindsay Sharman tries out diversity

(This also appeared in The Huffington Post)

In her blog yesterday, 2010 Funny Women Awards finalist Lindsay Sharman wrote:

____________________

A chap from The Green Party contacted me last week to offer me a 10 minute slot on a bill headlined by Alistair McGowan, for a Green Party fundraising event. I accepted, and we started exchanging e-mails to finalise details.

This morning, I received this –

Hi Lindsay,

I’m really sorry but I am going to have to withdraw our offer. It’s nothing personal, I was asked if I could increase the diversity of comics on the night. So we’ve got a 63 old transexual comic instead of a second female artist. Sorry you have been usurped in this case for a transexual

Best Regards,

Chris

____________________________________________________________________

I am a great admirer of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, especially the Appendix – on The Principles of Newspeak – which is why I have always been extremely opposed to so-called “positive discrimination”. It is pure Orwellian Doublethink. There is no such thing as “positive” discrimination; it is simply discrimination… It is an attempt to prevent discrimination by discriminating… Pure Doublethink.

The Green Party has managed to mess up their gig – and their PR – on all fronts. They had a good female comic in Lindsay Sharman. They then bizarrely tried to make the bill more ‘diverse’ by getting rid of not one of the male comics but one of the two female comics on the bill. AND they managed to belittle the (extremely good) transsexual comic (whom I know and admire greatly) by treating her as if she is not a woman but a separate ‘quota’.

As comic Karen O. Novak said, when hearing about this, the Green Party thought it had “achieved ‘diversity’ by replacing a white female comic with… a white female comic”.

Comic Charmian Hughes said: “I think the Green Party insulted both comics! They insulted the trans-sexual comic even more than the person they cancelled! I think it was actually more insulting to her than to Lindsay!!!”

Women have it bad enough already without the Green Party muddying the waters.

Janey Godley, a superb comic and possibly the best all-round creative I have ever encountered, tells me: “There is a booker in northern England who won’t have women on the bill… and I have had bookers say to me Sorry – We had a woman before and they were shit.”

Comedian Kate Smurthwaite tells me: “A London promoter once said to me: I can’t book you that week, Kate – I’ve already got Angie McEvoy on the bill and you’re too similar. Anyone who has seen both our acts would know we are very different in terms of style and content. The only obvious thing we have in common is gender.  Five minutes later, in the same conversation, the promoter said: I do want to book you, though, cos I think you’re really pretty – Do you want to come for a drink with me?

Comedian Laura Lexx tells me: “I have been introduced as The very pretty young lady Laura Lexx, which obviously doesn’t make an audience think particularly highly of you… but I very rarely gig on bills with other women outside of London so I suppose it often feels like it’s a ‘one in one out’ system for ladies and bills.”

Kate Smurthwaite tells me: “I once saw a male promoter say, as a female comic left the stage: I normally kiss the female acts, but I won’t kiss her. Then he said: If you want to drink alcohol, use the bar downstairs but (pointing at a busty woman in the front row) if you want to drink milk – ask her.”

Lindsay Sharman tells me: “A West Country promoter once introduced me to the stage with I only gave her this gig cos I fucked her! (I certainly hadn’t) and then mimed humping me from behind.”

But the sexism is not even restricted to men. Another female comic said to me: “CSE, who book gigs for the British Army, rarely book women – maybe one every four years – and they have a sexist website where all the men hold mics and the women are sexy dancers – and it’s women who run it!”

Lindsay Sharman used yesterday’s Green Party PR own-goal as part of her comedy act last night. “But,” she told me, “one of the other comics actually thought I was making it up, as the crassness of Sorry you have been usurped in this case for a transexual just sounds too unreal, like a shit punchline.”

I guess it is a bit like writing fiction. Novelists have told me they can’t write the actual truth because it’s so utterly OTT no-one will believe it. People will only believe the truth if it is watered-down. In comedy, I think people have a tendency to believe the made-up bits if they are skilfully interwoven and think the real bits are made-up because they are just too incredible.

Like this case in point.

The Green Party ‘diversifies’ into comedy Newspeak & Doublethink over women.

You could not make it up.

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How to finance a show at bottomless money pits like the Edinburgh Fringe

My elfin stand-up comedy chum Laura Lexx (she really did once work as an elf in Lapland) is going to the Edinburgh Fringe with multiple shows again this year and the problem as always is that playing the Fringe is (in the words of a comedian whom I have embarrassingly forgotten) like standing in a cold shower tearing up £20 notes.

As well as being a stand-up, Laura has her elfin toe dipped in ‘legit’ theatre. Her company is called Spun Glass Theatre. Last year, they played the Edinburgh Fringe for a second time and played the Brighton Fringe and branched out into school entertainments and – I love reading a bit of good creative PR speak – “completed development on a truly original piece of theatre”.

You Left Me in the Dark is, according to the blurb, “a piece of new writing inspired by Chekhov’s The Seagull which explores the themes of abandonment and devotion… The music of Florence + the Machine reflects the passionate nature of the characters’ love affair with each other and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.”

Frankly, I see few openings for knob gags in that – I am a simple man with simple tastes – but Chekovian drama has its followers.

The brain-stumper, though, is how do you finance a trip which you have to assume may result in a 100% financial loss – which is how any trip to the Edinburgh Fringe may end however good the project is – although, with luck, you may break even and fame and fortune may follow?

One route is ‘crowd funding’ which Spun Glass Theatre enterprisingly and successfully tried last year. There are websites like WeDidThis.org.uk which allow members of the public to donate money to artistic endeavours. If the company reaches their target for donations within a specified short period, they get to keep the money and give rewards to those who donated. If they fail to reach their target, they do not get the money and the people who have pledged pay nothing.

This year, Spun Glass Theatre is trying to raise £1,000 and the deal is that, if you cough up anything from £5 to £20, you get a variety of rewards from free tickets to free workshops to original artwork. And the money goes to funding the planned show.

“We regularly apply for funding via other routes,” Laura tells me, “but the numbers applying mean it is almost impossibly competitive. Crowd funding gives you the chance to be more proactive than just continually spending all your time writing applications and poetry.

“And I think crowd funding is a good test of whether you’re making something which has some appeal. If people won’t fund it being made (for rewards) how are you going make the project seem attractive enough to sell tickets?”

Of course, any project is in competition with all the other projects on a crowd funding site to get money. But, Laura says:

“We’re already half way to our target on our WeDidThis page and kicking the ass of everybody else that’s in the running this month, so we stand a good chance of getting there! We’ve only got a fortnight to go, though..”

Well, I’ve coughed-up.

I admire enterprising elfin chutzpah.

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Has British comedy stagnated since Monty Python, Hardee and Tiswas?

Beware. This is my blog. These are my very highly personal opinions. You can object. Please do.

People have said Alternative Comedy is not dead, it has just ceased to be Alternative. It has become the Mainstream. But they seldom talk about the next new wave of British comedians who will replace the now mainstream Alternative Comedians.

I desperately want to spot any new wave for the annual Malcolm Hardee Awards, which I organise. Our avowed intent is to try to find “comic originality”.

We do find admirably quirky individuals to award the main annual Comic Originality prize to – last year, the one-off Robert White; this year, the one-off Johnny Sorrow.

And their one-offness is as it should be. You cannot have comic originality if 37 other people are doing something similar.

But where are the new style comedians performing a recognisable new type of comedy genre? There has not been anything overwhelmingly new since so-called Alternative Comedy arrived in the mid-1980s – over 25 years ago.

As far as I can see, there have been four very rough waves of post-War British comedy, most of them comprising overlapping double strands.

The first double wave of ‘new’ comics in the 1950s were reacting partly to stuffy mainstream 1930s Reithian radio comedy, partly to the necessary order of the 1940s wartime years and partly they were rebelling against the dying music hall circuit epitomised by John Osborne‘s fictional but iconic Archie Rice in The Entertainer (1957).

The Goon Show (1951-1960) on BBC Radio, at the height of its popularity in the mid 1950s, was the antithesis of the ‘old school’ of pre-War comedy. The Goons were a surreal comic equivalent to John Osborne’s own rebellious Look Back in Anger (1956) and the kitchen sink realism which surfaced in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Osborne was ultra-realistic; The Goons were ultra-surreal.

But Osborne’s plays and The Goons‘ radio comedy were both reactions to the rigidly ordered society in pre-War, wartime and immediately post-War Britain and The Goons‘ new anarchic style of comedy (although it owes some debt to the pre-War Crazy Gang and although the Wartime radio series ITMA was slightly surreal) really was like the new rock ‘n’ roll (which was not coincidentally happening simultaneously). It was startlingly new. They were consciously rebelling and revolting against a clear status quo which they saw as stuffy and restrictive.

Hot on the heels of The Goons came a different form of rebellion – the satirists of the 1960s – with Beyond the Fringe (1960) on stage and That Was The Week That Was (1962-1963) on TV. These two slightly overlapping Second Waves of new post-War British comedy were again reacting to a stuffy status quo.

The First Wave, the surrealist Goons wave, then reasserted that it was still rolling on when a Third Wave of influence – Monty Python’s Flying Circus – appeared on BBC TV 1969-1974 and – as satire declined in the 1970s – it was Monty Python‘s (and, ultimately, The Goons‘) comedic gene pool that held sway for a while – also epitomised, oddly, by the children’s TV show – Tiswas (1974-1982).

The Goons, Beyond The Fringe and That Was The Week That Was had been rebelling against something; Monty Python was surreal and Tiswas was anarchic just for the sheer sake of it. Monty Python and Tiswas were one-offs, but they have pale imitations trundling on even to today.

After Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister in 1979, a Fourth Wave of new comics arose in the early and mid-1980s – a generation influenced by the satire gene not by the Goons/Python gene. These mostly-university-educated young left wing things rebelled against Thatcherism with their often political-based humour which became known as Alternative Comedy.

But again, just as there had been a second overlapping wave of comedy in the previous generation, this mostly ‘serious’ comedy was paralleled by a different wave possibly more low-key but epitomised by the decidedly fringe appeal of the hugely influential Malcolm Hardee, whose release from prison and subsequent comedy career coincided with the start of and overlapped with the future stars of Alternative Comedy.

Malcolm’s strand of mostly non-political comedy was spread by the clubs he ran and the acts he managed, agented, booked and/or nurtured: acts including the young Paul Merton (performing as Paul Martin when Malcolm first managed him), Jenny Eclair and later Keith Allen, Harry Enfield, Harry Hill, Vic Reeves, Jerry Sadowitz, Jim Tavaré and Johnny Vegas.

While London’s Comedy Store nurtured future mainstream acts (some progressing there from Malcolm’s clubs), the more bizarre and original new acts continued to flock to Malcolm’s gigs and clubs including his near-legendary Sunday Night at the Tunnel Palladium gigs and later his lower-key but just as influential Up The Creek club.

These two strands of 1980s comedy – the alternative political and the Hardee-esque – successfully came together in a Channel 4 programme – not, as is often cited, Saturday Live (1985-1987), a mostly failed hotch-potch with different presenters every week, but its long-remembered successor, Geoff Posner‘s Friday Night Live (1988) which supposedly firebrand political polemic comic Ben Elton presented every week in what was supposed to be an ironic sparkly showbiz jacket.

Political alternative stand-ups mixed with strange variety and character acts, oddball comics and cross-over acts like Jo Brand, Jenny Eclair, Harry Enfield and many others nurtured by Malcolm Hardee.

This was both the highpoint and the start of the decline of Alternative Comedy because serious money was spent on the relatively low-rating Saturday Live and Friday Night Live on Channel 4, both ultimately shepherded by Alan Boyd’s resolutely mainstream but highly influential Entertainment Department at LWT.

Since then, where has the next giant New Wave of British comedy been? There are random outbreaks of originality, but mostly there has been a barren mediocrity of pale imitations of previous waves – and the desolate, mostly laugh-free zone that is BBC3.

At this point, allow me an even more personal view.

I thought I spotted a change in Edinburgh Fringe comedy shows around 2003 when Janey Godley was barred from consideration for the Perrier Award (despite a very lively verbal fight among the judging the panel) because it was decided that her seminal show Caught in the Act of Being Myself did not fall within the remit of the Awards because it was not a single ‘show’ repeated every night: she was basically ad-libbing a different hour of comedy every performance for 28 consecutive nights.

That same year, Mike Gunn performed his confessional heroin-addict show Mike Gunn: Uncut at the Fringe although, unlike Janey, he lightened and held back some of the more serious details of his life story.

It seemed to me that, certainly after 2004, when Janey performed her confessional show Good Godley!,  Fringe shows started an increasing tendency towards often confessional autobiographical storytelling. Good Godley! was one of the first hour-long comedy shows at the Fringe (though not the only one) to use material that was not in any way funny – in that case, child abuse, rape, murder and extreme emotional damage. Janey did not tell funny stories; she told stories funny. Viewed objectively, almost nothing she actually talked about was funny but audiences fell about laughing because it truly was “the way she told ’em”.

Since then, too, there seems to have been a tendency towards improvisation, probably spurred by the financial success of Ross Noble and Eddie Izzard. The traditional 1980s Alternative Comics still mostly stay to a script. The 21st Century comics influenced by Janey Godley, Eddie Izzard and Ross Noble often do not (to varying degrees).

So it could be argued there has been a tendency in this decade away from gag-telling (apart from the brilliant Jimmy Carr, Milton Jones and Tim Vine) towards storytelling… and a tendency towards improvisational gigs (bastardised by the almost entirely scripted and prepared ad-libs on TV panel shows).

But long-form storytelling does not fit comfortably into TV formats which tend to require short-form, gag-based, almost sound-bite material – you cannot tell long involved stories on panel shows and on Michael McIntyre’s Comedy Roadshow type programmes. So a tendency in live gigs and certainly at the Edinburgh Fringe – a tendency away from gag-based comedy to storytelling comedy – has been unable to transfer to television and has therefore not fully developed.

Occasionally, a Fifth Wave of British comedy is sighted on the horizon but, so far, all sightings have turned out to be tantalising mirages.

One possibility are the Kent Comics who all studied Stand Up Comedy as an academic subject in the University of Kent at Canterbury. They include Pappy’s aka Pappy’s Fun Club, Tiernan Douieb, Jimmy McGhie, Laura Lexx and The Noise Next Door. But they share an origin, not a style.

Whither British comedy?

Who knows?

Not me.

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Random anarchy, incompetence and brilliance at the Edinburgh Fringe

After reading my blog yesterday about the Edinburgh Fringe, former Skint Video performer Brian Mulligan left a post on my Facebook page saying :

“This reminds me of watching a left wing revolutionary comic flicking past the front pages of hard political news (Apartheid, Contras other 80s stuff) in search of the past night’s reviews. Truly a bubble…”

He is absolutely right, of course. The whole of London could burn down and all anyone in Edinburgh would care about is whether Kate Copstick gave them a 3 or a 4 star review in The Scotsman.

The Edinburgh Fringe is the ultimate inward-looking bubble outside which nothing exists. It also seems as if the English riots are taking place in a totally different country which, indeed, they are.

Yesterday evening, I was having tea with comedian Laura Lexx in the City Cafe, talking about Ink, the straight play she has written/produced at the Kiwi Bar about the 7/7 terrorist bombings, while music played on the audio system and the TV monitor showed footage of hoodie youths turning their Grand Theft Auto games into 3D reality on the BBC News channel – with subtitles. The ranks of police in Darth Vader helmets running along the streets were keeping impeccable time to the rhythm of the music. It was an instant accidental music video. Respect, bro.

Laura was more interested than most in the riots because, in London, she lives in the middle of what was/is one of the main riot areas, round the corner from a large Tesco store, now looted. Clearly teenagers in her area have low aspirations. She was telling me about how the 5,000 flyers she ordered for her Ink show in Edinburgh had not yet arrived and she had had to pay for another 500 from another printer to tide her over.

Edinburgh at Fringe time becomes spectacularly incompetent with the venues, shops, bars, newspapers, magazines et al dragging in hundreds of inexperienced and largely uninterested students, unemployed and general ne’er-do-wells. All they want is drink, drugs and, if they strike lucky, to make the beast with two backs. There are unlikely to be riots in Edinburgh because all the potential rioters are working long hours in temporary jobs. But the effect of this transient annual workforce is that nobody remembers anything that happened at the Fringe beyond two years ago. There is no continuity. Almost everybody is equally a newcomer.

So far, the City Cafe wins the highly-contended-for prize for utter incompetence. The Blair Street Sauna, only slightly lower down the slope of the same road, almost certainly has better service and probably has better things to eat. (I have never been there.)

At the City Cafe, it took 27 minutes to get a wildly overpriced (as everything is in Edinburgh at Fringe time) and very bland Mississippi Mud Pie out of them when the place was only a quarter full. This saga went through getting the other half of the food ordered, getting the drinks, but them forgetting the Mississippi Mud Pie, being reminded, bringing a totally different dessert, forgetting the Mississippi Mud Pie, being reminded, forgetting the Mississippi Mud Pie again; and only getting it when I stood at the bar looking at them with an unblinking and slightly psychotic stare.

I don’t actually mind people ballsing things up through general inbuilt incompetence – it’s their employer’s fault not theirs. But this was don’t give a shit incompetence – par for the course in many an establishment during the Fringe.

Things on the show front were going well, though.

The Forum at the Underbelly is a touching little play about an online internet forum with a slight twist at the end which could elicit tears from the unwary. This ain’t going to become a Hollywood movie because you come out into the night unsettled and melancholic. But it is beautifully acted and scripted.

Sneasons of Liz at the New Town Theatre is the opposite – you come out into the night beaming.

It is a musical narrative about a woman with multiple allergies who sneezes her way around the world and is not remotely anything like what I expected.

It is an odd production because most Edinburgh Fringe shows – even the best ones – are ‘alternative’, which means perhaps a bit rough-and-ready and… well… Fringe-like. The one thing they never are is smooth, mainstream Broadway or London West End quality.

But Sneasons of Liz is just that.

It is only a singer on a stool or wandering the stage plus a piano accompanist and some good lighting design. So it is stark. It has no scenery. But it is of London West End or Broadway standard and almost from another era.

This is largely because its star Liz Merendino is a Grade A humdinger of a performer.

She is a classically-trained singer from New York, based in Hong Kong who has been a music teacher for the last nine years. She was wasting her time doing that; she should have been on the West End or Broadway stage. She is that good. The show combines musical standards with specially-commissioned new songs from Fascinating Aida’s Adele Anderson and it is a wonderfully entertaining showbiz blast. Very American but, in this case, none the worse for that. In fact, it’s a positive advantage here.

We are talking Liza Minnelli blast-em-out songs, though much more varied than that implies and Liz Merendino has a voice to die for – let’s hope she doesn’t – one which can cope with some very difficult singing subtleties.

Great songs. Great energy. Great piano accompanist (strangely uncredited). Great, great singer.

It is probably incomparable at the Fringe but, in its own world, it is a 5-star show which does not put a foot wrong.

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Filed under Comedy, Music, Politics, Theatre