I started and used to run the annual Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards at the Edinburgh Fringe. They started in 2005. They were due to (and did) end in August 2017.
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 that June 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.
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?
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?
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.
… CONTINUED HERE …