(Photograph by Fusion Medical Animation, via UnSplash)
My British-born friend Louisette Stodel posted this on her Facebook page today and I think it deserves an even wider readership.
Her parents and family were Dutch, based in Amsterdam…
When my Jewish parents were in hiding from the Nazis for 3 years as children during WWII, they did not have phones, iPads or Zoom to stay in touch with their friends and family, they couldn’t chat and wish them happy holidays. They didn’t even know where their parents or siblings were, or whether they were alive or dead (and many did not come back from the concentration camps).
My point? Let’s stay safe this Christmas and make the best of it. Tier 4 has clipped your wings, ruined your plans and you won’t be going to Spain or feeding your Aunty or hugging your gran and that is really sad. But no doubt in the last 9 months you have been able to teach them how to do FaceTime and Zoom.
So enjoy the technology we have that allows you to be in touch with the people you love at Christmas. We all look forward to the day when we can safely hug one another again.
In the chat, I mention the Zircon satellite, which is incorrect. I think the satellite I should have mentioned was probably an ECHELON one.
I also mention the Pakistan Ambassador in Pyongyang and I think I mean the Indian Ambassador. It was a long time ago and I have a legendarily shit memory.
Anyway, we got through comedy, North Korea, Donald Trump, politics, dictators, propaganda, the US electoral system, the media and the Edinburgh Fringe, all in 45 minutes of fun, frivolity and totalitarian talk.
After viewing it, Sandra Smith – comedy industry uber-fan and observer of such details – commented: “Very active head action while speaking to the President.” She listed…
14 ear touches
I wish she hadn’t mentioned all those. I’m a bit touchy…
Posted slightly belatedly, this is the last of these Weekly Diary blogs and proof – if proof were needed – that 42 is not the answer to everything…
SUNDAY 1st NOVEMBER
Since I was hospitalised in May, I normally wake up with a bone dry mouth 8-12 times a night and have to drink water. Last night, although I had hiccups and heartburn shortly after going to bed, I slept through and only woke up once with a dry mouth at around 0600.
Are the Chinese pills I started taking last week having an effect?
MONDAY 2nd NOVEMBER
Something fishy in the US – President Donald Trump
It is the US Presidential Election tomorrow.
In the meantime, Dutch comedy judge and linguist Louisette Stodel sent me a fishy picture of salmon-faced Donald Trump with the message “Lox him up!”
I am much less of a linguist and had to look it up to find out Lox is Yiddish (and North American) for Salmon.
Also today, in the Netherlands, a metro train on raised tracks in Spijkenisse, near Rotterdam, crashed through a barrier at the end of the tracks and did not plummet 32ft onto the water and footpath below but ended up delicately balanced atop a giant polyester sculpture of a whale’s tail.
A ‘fluke’ accident in Holland and one whale of a tale of a tail
Apparently whales’ tails are known as ‘flukes’. Reuters and some excitable UK newspapers reported that, coincidentally, the sculpture’s name was ‘Saved By a Whale’s Tail’. But Dutch sources said it had the rather more mundane title ‘Whales’ Tails’.
What are the odds of a ‘fluke’ accident like this happening? Quite high according to a Fortean Times article I read years ago.
The odds of you being killed by a pig falling on your specific head this year make it massively improbable. The likelihood that someone somewhere in the world this year will be killed by a pig falling on his or her head is quite high.
The most improbable coincidences and unlikely/impossible events happen every every day.
TUESDAY 3rd NOVEMBER
Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. A sequel to Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan.
As if to prove this, my eternally un-named friend and I settled down to watch the second Borat movie on Amazon Prime today.
I had seen the first film; she had not. So I helpfully explained that the people in the film were (mostly) ‘real’ people, not actors, as it is not necessarily obvious.
I had been slightly uneasy with the opening scenes of the first film when I saw it. They were set in Kazakhstan and were basically about laughing at people who were poor. I was surprised roughly the same thing happened at the start of the second movie.
But I was able to tell my eternally-un-named friend that, in my opinion, the first movie – which I had seen and she had not – had been better because the scenes were longer and the only bits which really worked in this second one were the sequences with some drunken students and a Christian meeting.
Bizarrely, when we got to the end, the much-reported sequence with Rudy Guliani being put in an allegedly compromising situation with Borat’s (fake) sister – and some separate much-commented-upon sequences with a babysitter – were not in the movie shown on Amazon Prime.
It took a bit of online Googling to see how and why these scenes were missing.
It turned out we had been watching the first movie not the second one and I had remembered not a single second of it.
My memory has never been of the best.
WEDNESDAY 4th NOVEMBER
President Vladimir Putin – a highly successful fisher of men
The US Presidential Election was yesterday. Today, no result.
Well it looks like, whoever gets most votes, Vladimir Putin has won… Either way he wins. Trump re-elected or America divided. All this and a thriving door-handle business. Putin is on a roll.
I got a letter from the NHS saying I am seeing the Calcium Consultant on 27th November.
THURSDAY 5th NOVEMBER
The first day of the second COVID lockdown in England.
The US Election still undecided.
Who knows what the outcome of either will be?
…Agatha Christie kept me guessing beyond the last page…
It reminded me of when, as a teenager, I bought a paperback copy of Agatha Christie’s whodunnit Murder on the Orient Express at the WH Smith bookshop in Ilford.
I got to the end of the book only to discover that someone had torn out the last couple of pages, so I did not know who dunnit.
Smith’s did not have another copy so ordered one for me.
It arrived about two months later, by which time I had forgotten the details of the characters and clues.
I never did know who dunnit until a film was made of it, produced by Lord Brabourne, who was later blown up with Lord Mountbatten by the Provisional IRA, in a boat in Ireland.
Oh what a tangled web life is.
FRIDAY 6th NOVEMBER
Phishing (Photo: Bermix Studio via Unsplash)
In the morning, my landline rang: a rare thing, as most calls are on my mobile phone.
The caller claimed that the insulation in my loft had been found to be dangerous and to cause mould and they would sort it out for free.
He said they were a government advisory group. When I asked twice who financed them, he hung up.
I don’t know what the scam was but, after the pitch, he only got as far as “Can I confirm you are the homeowner…” before it ended.
It makes a change from the normal scam/phishing line: ”I understand you had a car accident in the last six months that wasn’t your fault…”
SATURDAY 7th NOVEMBER
I woke up with a bone dry mouth about ten times last night and had to drink water.
Are the Chinese pills I am taking having an effect?
Clearly not yet.
It’s been that sort of day/year/life, really
The US Election has been called for Joe Biden but Donald Trump has refused to accept the result, claiming with no evidence that there has been voter fraud.
This is perfectly normal in the new world led by social media where, if you say anything, however fanciful, it becomes a fact.
In the afternoon, I received an email headed: demur we had around kinda placement for emergency pecuniary resource 8767178744116284
The message, in a reality beyond the fictional world of Borat, read:
Don’t expend all along you acquire, save and put at least, 10%-20%. This too bad is one after another of the commonsensible principles of personal finance. It is canonic wisdom non compos mentis to pass altogether your wage but to bring through approximately of it for the rainy twenty-four hour period. Unitary of the things you would discover if you scan the record book, “Rich Dad, Poor Dad”, is that rich people spare/place maiden and then pass the left while skint mass pass firstly and then write the odd fellow (if on that point is anything left). I am likewise really shamefaced of this. I sometimes incur myself doing fronting the compensate thing to do, and boast away my every week income on a weekend.
That is one hell of a piece of translation software the scammers are using.
The scammers have been scammed.
Fiction, fantasy and reality have merged.
The world has been spiralling increasingly out of control.
JOHN: The Perrier Award judges individually went to see her show and it was not until they sat down together to discuss possible nominees that they realised they had all seen her perform totally different shows because she was making it up every night. Stories from her life. Very very funny. But different hour-long shows every night.
There was a big discussion about whether she was eligible for the Award. Some people were keen to nominate her but the rules were that you were nominated for performing ‘a show’ and what she was doing was not the same, single show every night. She was, it could be and was argued, simply chatting to the audience.
She was making up a different hour-long show every night for maybe 28 nights on the trot. Utterly brilliant and much more impressive than doing the same show every night. But, because it was NOT the same basic show every night, eventually, it was decided she was ineligible and she was not nominated for the Perrier.
LOUISETTE: That’s exactly what you were talking about earlier, in a sense.
Janey Godley in Glasgow at Children In Need Rocks Scotland
JOHN: Yes. And, as far as I know, to this day, years later, Janey has never scripted a Fringe comedy show in her life. You get roughly the same show each year now – a different show every year – but she plays it by ear.
I remember once in London walking up Dean Street with her to the Soho Theatre for a supposed ‘preview’ of her upcoming Edinburgh Fringe show and she told me not only did she not know exactly which stories would be in the show; she did not know what her opening line would be.
She maybe had twelve or fifteen or eighteen basic unscripted stories and could fit maybe five or six into an hour-long show, but there was no script and no pre-decided running order. And the show was brilliantly funny. Now THAT is talent. THAT I admire.
LOUISETTE: How does she end her shows on time?
JOHN: Well, I know one year she did have one climactic prepared story and it lasted exactly nine minutes. It wasn’t scripted, but it was structured tightly. So she had the sound technician at the back of the audience flash a torch exactly ten minutes from the end of her scheduled time and, whatever she was saying at that point, she would get seamlessly into the start of the final story and, every night, she would finish to within about 30 seconds of her scheduled end-time – every night. Brilliant.
LOUISETTE: So what excites you is seeing unique shows.
JOHN: Well yes. I like Lewis Schaffer shows, of course. The ultimate in unpredictable rollercoaster shows.
LOUISETTE: You prefer the uneven acts.
JOHN: Yes. Well, sort of. Janey’s shows are not uneven – they are uniformly funny and smooth, but they are not tightly pre-planned. She’s just a great, great storyteller.
JOHN: Smooth. She has great audience control. But, in general – Janey is an exception – I prefer rollercoaster acts. And maybe, for that reason, I prefer newer acts.
LOUISETTE: Lewis Schaffer is not a new act.
JOHN: OK. I prefer newer acts OR wildly unpredictable acts.
LOUISETTE: And Lewis Schaffer is dependably unpredictable.
“He doesn’t fit the mould. But he could… become a TV success” (Photograph by Garry Platt)
JOHN: To say the least. Sometimes he will, from nowhere, just go off on a complete tangent and come up with wonderful original stuff.
I like seeing unexpected, brilliant stuff coming from nowhere.
Lewis Schaffer is never going to get success as a TV comic. Not as a stand-up. He doesn’t fit the mould. But he could, like and unlike Johnny Vegas, become a TV success through personality.
In his case, I think he would be a good presenter of documentaries because he has all these bizarre angles. He has a Wikipedia mind: he knows a little about a lot.
LOUISETTE: He’s also very funny on his Facebook page. But what is it about Lewis Schaffer specifically on stage? OK, he’s unpredictable; he’s up-and-down; he has great ideas…
JOHN: If you see him once, you might think it’s a shambles but, if you see him five times in a row, you get addicted.
LOUISETTE: The first time I saw him, his show was brilliant.
JOHN: Is this the My girlfriend had a penis show?
JOHN: Now that WAS a show!
LOUISETTE: Friends of mine who recommended him told me: “See this guy. You never know what’s going to happen…”
LOUISETTE: …and it wasn’t like that.
JOHN: Not that show. It actually had a structure. I nearly fell off my seat with shock because it was a ‘real’ structured show.
Certainly, with Lewis Schaffer, you see the real person. You can’t bloody avoid it. With him, the attraction is the unpredictability and the flashes of genuine left-field insight. He’s the definitive rollercoaster.
LOUISETTE: …which excites you because you don’t know what’s going to happen?
Not relevant: L’Ange du Foyer ou le Triomphe du Surréalisme by Max Ernst, 1937;
LOUISETTE: You like amazing stuff coming from nowhere. I had been going to ask you if it is the writing, the performance or the delivery that gets you excited, but it’s actually none of those things.
JOHN: Well, ‘writing’ is maybe not the right word. It can be. But it’s something coming from the laterally-thinking recesses of the brain.
LOUISETTE: So with someone like Ross Noble, where you know it’s going to be a little bit unpredictable but you also know that he’s probably going to make it all come good, does that make it less interesting because it’s less dangerous?
JOHN: No. You can make something become good through talent.
LOUISETTE: So it’s the creation ‘in the moment’. You like seeing things happen ‘in the moment;’.
JOHN: Probably, yes. I like to be surprised by where something goes. It’s like a good twist in a film.
LOUISETTE: The unexpected. We are back to that. Tales of the Unexpected.
JOHN: Yes. The unexpected. Someone said the other day that I look like Roald Dahl. I don’t think this is a compliment. Do I look like Roald Dahl?
I sign some random books for a few of my appreciative blog readers in Amsterdam, in October 1988. (Photograph by Rob Bogaerts / Anefo)
I posted Part 1 and Part 2 the last couple of days, so …here is Part 3 – the penultimate part – of a conversation in London’s Soho Theatre Bar back in the mists of 2017 in which comedy festival judge and linguistic advisor Louisette Stodel asked me about my taste in comedy. I continue to talk less than fluently through my own anal passage…
LOUISETTE: So you admire skilled and talented people…
JOHN: Yes, but skill and talent are not the same thing. Malcolm Hardee – the highly-regarded British comedian, philosopher and nudist – always used to say he didn’t like mime or juggling, because they are skills not talents and “a tragic waste of time”.
If an average person practises for 12 hours a day for 5 years, they could probably become an excellent mime or an excellent juggler. But, if they practise endlessly trying to be a good comedian, they would not necessarily end up an even average comedian because there is some innate talent required to be a good comedian.
If you have two good jugglers or mimes, they can probably be as effective doing each other’s routines.
If you have two good comedians, even if they deliver the lines with exactly the same intonation and pauses, they very possibly cannot be as effective doing each other’s material.
LOUISETTE: Because there is something in the person…
Tommy: often copied; never bettered
JOHN: Yes. Though it depends on the jokes a little. People CAN do Tommy Cooper jokes and impressions quite successfully because the jokes are very short and simple and the timing is built-in to his very specific style of delivery. But I have seen people steal short, snappy, very funny Milton Jones jokes and they can’t deliver them as effectively as he does.
LOUISETTE: Some funny people are born writers and some are born performers.
JOHN: In days of yore, you didn’t write your own jokes; you bought them. Bob Monkhouse and Denis Goodwin used to write for Bob Hope. Well, that still happens, of course. (Famous comedian A) has a scriptwriter. And (Famous comedian B) buys loads of gags. I know the guy who writes for (Famous comedian A) and he was watching some TV panel show recently and one of his jokes from a few years before turned up. Which was fine; he had been paid for it.
LOUISETTE: Bob Monkhouse was brilliant. But would you have paid to go and see him? You said earlier that you would not pay to see Michael McIntyre because he was too professional for you.
JOHN: Interestingly, I WOULD have gone to see Bob Monkhouse and I have no idea why… I… I dunno. He was the Michael McIntyre of his time and he would have been the same every night.
LOUISETTE: He was a different comedian to McIntyre with a different relationship to the audience.
JOHN: I suppose the attraction of Monkhouse was that you could throw any subject at him and, off the top of his head, he would have six or ten cracking good jokes about it. No tricks. He was just like a joke encyclopaedia.
As a kid, I never rated Ted Ray – who was a generation before Monkhouse but had that same encyclopaedic joke ability. But maybe that’s because I was just a kid. Maybe if I saw him now I would appreciate his ability more. Though, to me, he never had Monkhouse’s charisma.
Bob: “He just really was hyper-sensitive”
Monkhouse had a terrible public reputation for being smarmy and insincere – largely from his stint presenting The Golden Shot – but I don’t think he was. He just really was hyper-sensitive. I only encountered him once. We had him on Tiswas and he famously liked slapstick: he had acres of slapstick films and idolised the great slapstick performers but, when he agreed to do Tiswas, the one thing he specified up-front was: “You can’t shove a custard pie in my face.”No-one had any idea why.
The pies were made of highly-whipped shaving foam, not custard, so they wiped off without damage or stickiness, but he wouldn’t have it. No problem. He said it up-front. No problem, but very strange.
LOUISETTE: You like the encyclopaedic part of Monkhouse and his ability to tell pre-prepared jokes well. But what about, at the other end of the spectrum, Johnny Vegas? He appeals to your love of more anarchic things?
JOHN: Malcolm Hardee phoned me up one Sunday afternoon and said: “You gotta come down to Up The Creek tonight to see this new comedian Johnny Vegas. You and me will love him but the audience might not.” No-one had ever heard of Johnny Vegas, then.
I went and saw him that night and Malcolm and I loved him and the audience loved him. You could feel the adrenaline in the air. You had no idea what he was going to say or do next and I don’t think he did either. I remember him clambering through and over the audience in the middle of his act for no logical reason.
Hardee called Johnny Vegas “a genius”
He had no vastly detailed act. He just reacted to the audience’s reactions to what he did. Utterly brilliant. I said to Malcolm: “He’s never going to be a success, because he can’t do 2-minute jokes on TV and repeat them word-for-word and action-for-action in rehearsals, camera rehearsals, dress rehearsals and recordings.”
And I was wrong, of course. He HAS become very successful on TV. But not really as a comic. He made it as a personality – on panel shows where he could push the personality angle.
There was amazing adrenaline in the air that night at Up The Creek. You can feel adrenaline in a live show. But you can’t feel it through a TV screen.
A few years later, I saw Johnny Vegas perform an hour-long show at the Edinburgh Fringe and Malcolm had seen the show for maybe seven nights before that – every night. And Malcolm used the word “genius” about Johnny and I said: “You almost never ever use that word about anyone,” and he said, “Every time I’ve seen this show in the last seven days, it’s been a totally different show.”
Not just slightly different. A 100% totally different show.
Janey Godley is interesting in that respect because you know the story of her NOT being nominated for the Perrier Award at the Edinburgh Fringe?
LOUISETTE: So you don’t like actors trying to be stand-up comics…
JOHN: To an extent. I am also allergic to a lot of character comedy. I don’t like character acts in general, though I do like some. I think the closer the ‘character’ is to reality – to being like a real person – the less I like it. But, if it’s a cartoon character – Charlie Chuck is a perfect example –I like it.
I adore Simon Munnery; he can be very surreal, but I didn’t like his early Alan Parker, Urban Warrior character – It was too close to reality for me.
LOUISETTE: You mean realistic.
JOHN: Yes. I have met people who really are pretty-much like that. When I was a researcher for TV shows, I got typed for finding eccentrics and bizarre acts. I would find genuinely different-thinking people who did odd things and usually lived in provincial suburbia, bored out of their skulls with the mundanity of their lives, unable to unleash their inner originality and unconventionality.
So, if I watch a performer pretending to be eccentric, I think: Why am I watching someone faking a ‘performance’ when I could be watching the real thing? You can see in their eyes that these performers are not the real thing. They are sane people trying to be, to varying extents, oddballs they are not.
Well, all good comedians are, of course, mad to an extent.
LOUISETTE: They are not all mad.
JOHN: They are all unconventional thinkers or they have some personality disorder. The good ones. And I think one of the reasons I like watching comedy is I like watching some of the bizarre characters which a lot of comedians genuinely are. I don’t like people pretending to be odd characters, but I like watching people who ARE… well, a bit odd. They are the good comics for me.
JOHN: If someone does a character act, they are pretending to be someone else, which is what an actor does… rather than being themselves or some version of themselves, which is what a modern comedian does. So, if I can watch a comedian – let us not mention Lewis Schaffer – with bizarre character traits, I am happy. If I watch an actor pretending to be a bizarre character but not being themselves, I am not really that interested because I can go out and find the real nutter.
LOUISETTE: So what you are saying is you want the person to be the person and you want that person to be nuts. Is that because there is no danger in playing a character, no risk except that the audience might not like it? Whereas, if the person is being themselves and they get it wrong or they go off the rails, there is a risk?
JOHN: I suppose so – like watching a motor race because there is always the danger of a disastrous crash.
I may be like a Miss World contestant.
LOUISETTE: I don’t think so.
JOHN: But you know how contestants in old-fashioned beauty contests were always asked their interests and they would say, “Oh! I’m interested in people”?
Well, I AM interested in people and how their minds work.
Most of my blogs are not objective blogs. They have very little of me in them. That is not because I am hiding me. It is because I’m interested in finding out how the other person’s mind works and – because they are usually creative in some way – how their creative juices shape their performance pieces or their life – how their mind creates original end-results. Or – because I sometimes mention crime – how their slightly non-mainstream thoughts work. And, of course, if there are quirky anecdotes in it, that’s great. I am interested in the people and I am a sucker for quirky anecdotes.
LOUISETTE: You say you are interested in the creative process – the thing that makes that person tick both on and off stage – But how do you analyse that? How do you figure out from somebody’s performance – even if it’s very close to the real person – what that real person’s process is?
JOHN: I don’t know. Maybe that’s why I keep watching people perform. If I knew everything, there would be no point seeing any other act.
LOUISETTE: But what are you looking for?
JOHN: I dunno. I’m just interested in how everyone is different. Everyone is different; everyone is unique. There is no end to it, missus.
At a distance, people are similar but, up close, they are, like Charlie Chuck, unique
LOUISETTE: Infinitely different.
JOHN: Yes. It sounds wanky to say it out loud, but people are infinitely interesting, yes. At a distance, people are just a mass of similar heads but, in China, the Terracotta Warriors in Xian all have individual faces.
LOUISETTE: How does that come into it?
JOHN: I have no idea. I’m making this up as I go along. But, if you read about identical twins, they are usually a bit the same but a lot different. I’m interested in individuality. It’s not nature OR nurture. It’s BOTH that creates infinite uniqueness.
LOUISETTE: I’m still interested in getting at this elementary, basic thing that you are looking for. You do not want things to be off-pat. You don’t want an act to be overly polished. But what about someone like Spencer Jones who has a very well-formed act.
JOHN: Yes, he is interesting because he IS an actor and he IS doing character comedy… so I should not like him, but I do… But, then, he is doing a cartoon character. In no way are you going to find that character working in Barclays Bank or walking along the high street. So I like him, I think, because he is a cartoon character. I think it is mostly tightly-scripted…
LOUISETTE: Yes, that’s why I am asking you…
JOHN: Maybe physical comedy and prop comedy is different.
LOUISETTE: Is he prop comedy?
JOHN: I dunno. Martin Soan created The Naked Balloon Dance for The Greatest Show on Legs… The Balloon Dance has to be done exactly as it is choreographed.
The whole point is that you never see any naughty bits and therefore the balloons have to be… It looks chaotic, but, if it were actually done willy-nilly – if that’s an appropriate phrase – it would fall apart and would not be as funny.
LOUISETTE: You said it LOOKS chaotic. Do you enjoy that? What you are saying is that, if it looks chaotic but it actually isn’t…
JOHN: Maybe prop comedy and physical comedy are different to stand-up. I suppose with Spencer Jones, you are shocked by the use of the props; the… unexpectedness… This… this falls apart as an argument, doesn’t it? There must be something different…
I like pun comedy: Tim Vine, Milton Jones, Darren Walsh, Leo Kearse to an extent. They are very tightly pre-scripted or, at least, prepared. With puns, if they have a vast number of puns, they can move the order around but the flow, the pacing, the momentum has to be kept going so they need to be highly pre-prepared.
So that’s where my thing falls down. Verbally, pun shows and short gag-short gag-short gag shows like Milton Jones’ have to be very tightly choreographed and the prop comedy shows have to be very tightly choreographed physically.
I know from being involved in Tiswas – the ancient slapstick kids’ show – that, if you do something that appears to be anarchy, you have to organise it really, really well. You can’t perform anarchy in an anarchic way; you have to organise it in advance.
JOHN: Indeed. And I remember one Tiswas production meeting, after the show had been going for years, where the producer said: “We have to figure out some way to make things go wrong during the show.” Because they had been going for so many years, all likelihoods were covered-for in pre-production meetings. Everyone was very experienced, very professional and nothing really went wrong that threw everything off course. You could script-in things to go wrong, but nothing ever went genuinely disastrously wrong of its own accord.
LOUISETTE: Which you seem to like…
JOHN: I do like anarchy. I don’t especially want to see a Michael McIntyre show because it will be too smoothly professional. I do prefer shows that are up-and-down like a roller-coaster in an anarchic way. Though, if it involves immense detail like props or puns, then you can’t have real anarchy. The only way to have apparent anarchy with props and puns and tight gag-gag-gag routines is to prepare it all very carefully.
So I am… I am getting schizophrenic here, aren’t I…?
LOUISETTE: You are. But that’s good. I was discussing it with Frankie (Louisette’s son Frankie Brickman) and he asked me if it was unpredictability you like or feigned unpredictability.
JOHN: Maybe if they feign the unpredictability in a very professional way and I don’t spot the fact it’s feigned…
It’s not even unpredictability I like. It’s the cleverness. If it’s clever and a rollercoaster, I will forgive them the bits that don’t work for the bits that do work.
To coincide with their end, I thought I might post a blog about my taste in comedy. What is the point in having a blog if you can’t be self-indulgent?
So, in June 2017, I persuaded my chum, oft-times comedy judge and linguistic expert Louisette Stodel to ‘interview’ me in London’s Soho Theatre Bar for that planned blog. But then I never got round to transcribing the interview and actually writing it. Unpardonable lethargy may have had something to do with it too.
Time passed, as time does, and I was going to run the interview/blog to coincide with the start of the 2018 Edinburgh Fringe. But again I never got round to transcribing the interview and writing that blog. Again, unpardonable lethargy may have had something to do with it.
But, with performers now preparing to start to book venues and think about getting round to writing or at least pretending to start to write shows for the 2019 Edinburgh Fringe, I miraculously got round to transcribing the interview at the weekend and here is Part 1 of thatJune 2017 chat.
LOUISETTE: When did you first go to the Fringe?
JOHN: Well, I started going to the Edinburgh Film Festival in the mid-1970s when I was reviewing movies for magazines and, around the mid-1980s, I switched to the Edinburgh Fringe, which is around the time comedy started taking over from naff university theatre groups. I was looking for acts to appear on TV shows.
LOUISETTE: How long have you been blogging about comedy?
JOHN: It has never really been a 100% comedy blog. I started it in 2010 to plug a movie I had foolishly put money into and it became daily around April 2011 to plug comedy-related stuff I was helping to stage at the Edinburgh Fringe that August and I stopped doing it daily at the end of December 2016.
But it has never really been a comedy blog. I tend not to write reviews of comedy. They tend to be previews in advance of the actual performance of a show. In a sense, I don’t care so much about what the show is like but about how it got created by this particular person. It’s about interesting people doing interesting things, usually creative and/or in some way quirky. It’s always about people, rarely about things. People, people, people. And I do like a quirky anecdote.
LOUISETTE: What is it about quirkiness you like?
JOHN: The TV programme stuff I used to do was usually related to quirkiness. I would be finding ordinary people who did bizarre things… a man rollerskating wearing a bright yellow plastic sou’wester while simultaneously playing the harmonica and spoons, with a seagull on his shoulder. Ah! Mr Wickers, a Tiswas Talented Teacher!
LOUISETTE: You like eccentricity.
Surprise! Surprise! – A show and a clue to what I really like
JOHN: Admire it, for sure. But I remember having a conversation with another researcher on Surprise! Surprise! at LWT and we both agreed, if you want to find a real eccentric, you do not go for extroverts. You do NOT want the person who makes all his mates laugh in the pub. They are just superficial.
What you want is an introvert with eccentricity within. The extrovert just likes the sound of their own voice and just wants attention. The eccentric introvert has got odd quirkiness in depth within them.
Comedians are odd because you would think they would have to be wild extroverts, getting up on stage wanting applause, but loads are deep-down shy and terrified inside. Maybe it’s the dichotomy that makes them. I like people who think differently.
People often contact me and say: “Come and see my show for your blog.” And I may do but it’s not the show – not the end result – that attracts me. I don’t really do reviews. I am interested in interviewing the person about why or how they did the show or what they feel like when they are performing it. I’m interested in the psychology of creative people not the end result itself, as such.
In a sense, I am not bothered whether the show is good or not good provided it is interesting. I would much rather watch an interesting failure than a dull success. You can very often learn more from what doesn’t work than from what works.
LOUISETTE: So what is ‘interesting’?
JOHN: Lateral thinking is interesting. Instead of going from A-B, you go from A to T to L to B or maybe you never get to B.
LOUISETTE: So you like the unexpected.
JOHN: I think Michael McIntyre is absolutely brilliant. 120% brilliant. But I would not pay to see his one of his shows, because I know what I am going to get. I can go see him in Manchester and the next day in Swansea and the next day in Plymouth and it will be the same show. Perfect. A work of art. Superb. But the same perfect thing.
LOUISETTE: So you are talking about wanting unpredictability?
JOHN: Yes. And people flying, going off at tangents, trying things out which even they didn’t know they were going to do.
LOUISETTE: How do you know they didn’t know?
Boothby Graffoe – always the unexpected
JOHN: I think you can tell… Boothby Graffoe had a very very good 20 or 30 minute act he would do in clubs. (His 60-minute shows were good too.) Fine. It was all very good. Audiences loved it. But, in a way, he was better with a bad audience. The good audience would listen to his very well put-together material. But, if he got hecklers or distractions, he would fly off on wild flights of fantasy, even funnier than the prepared show, almost soar round the room then eventually get seamlessly back to the prepared show. Brilliant.
There was another act, now established, whom I won’t name. When he was starting off, maybe 50% of his stuff was OK, 45% was not very good and 5% was absolute genius. I would go watch him for that 5% genius. And I would still rather go see a show like that which is 5% genius than a solid mainstream show that is 100% perfect entertainment.
If someone creates something truly original in front of your eyes, it is like magic.
LOUISETTE: Michael McIntyre get laughs from saying unexpected things.
JOHN: If I see Michael McIntyre, I do not know what is going to happen, but it is pre-ordained what is going to happen. It is slick in the best way. If people are on TV and ‘famous’, I am not that interested because they have reached a level of professional capability. I prefer to see reasonably new acts or lower middle-rung acts. And people untarnished by TV.
If you see someone who is REALLY starting off, they are crap, because they can’t adjust their act to the specific audience. When performers reach a certain level of experience, they can cope with any type of audience and that is interesting to see how they can turn an audience but, if they are TV ‘stars’ they may well automatically have easy audiences because the audience has come to see “that bloke” or “that girl off the telly” and they are expecting to have a good time.
If it’s Fred NoName, the audience have no expectations.
I prefer to see Fred NoName with a rollercoaster of an act and I am interested in seeing the structure of an act. I am interested in the mechanics of it.
LOUISETTE: And you like the element of danger? It could all go wrong, all go pear-shaped?
JOHN: Yes. On the other hand (LAUGHS) most improvisation is shit because the performers are often not very good.
LOUISETTE: Don’t you have to be very skilled to improvise?
“Most improvisation is shit: the performers are not very good.”
JOHN: In my erstwhile youth, I used to go every week to Pentameters club at The Freemasons Arms pub in Hampstead and watch the Theatre Machine improvisation show supervised by Keith Johnstone.
Very good. Very interesting.
But, for some reason, I don’t like most improvisation today.
Partly that’s because, a lot of the time, you can see it’s NOT fully improvised. You can see the…
JOHN: Templates. Yeah. Certain routines they can just adjust. Give me the name of an animal… Give me a performance style… It sounds like they are widening possibilities, but they are narrowing them so they can be slotted into pre-existing storylines and routines they can adjust.
Also, a lot of improvisation groups seem to comprise actors trying to be comedians… I have an allergy to actors trying to be comedians. They’re just attempting and usually failing to be comedic until a ‘real’ job comes along.
LOUISETTE: Surely an actor can be funny in character, though.
JOHN: Often I think: What I am watching here is like a showreel of their theatre school training. It’s like an audition show. They go through 20 characters just to show their breadth of ability – to impress themselves as much as the audience. But the audience has not come there to appreciate their versatility. The audience wants to be entertained not to be impressed. The audience wants to enjoy their material, not give the act marks out of ten for technique.