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Comedy godfather Malcolm Hardee on Vic Reeves and Michael Barrymore

This extract from the late Malcolm Hardee’s autobiography I Stole Freddie Mercury’s Birthday Cake gives his views of some comedians in 1995…

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Malcolm Hardee’s autobiography

I was attacked at Glastonbury by a bloke called Bone, part of the anarchist lot Class War. He was going on about how we were all rich. I must have been wearing a suit at the time. He had a daughter called Jenny Bone, who was a brilliant 16 year-old comic, the female equivalent of Jerry Sadowitz. I only ever saw her do about five or six gigs and never heard of her again. She must have given up, which is a great pity.

Some great comedians have given up when they might have gone on to greater things. Others have gone on to gain that success.

Vic Reeves went on to gain success. He should have given up.

Vic was a very clever man. He used to perform in South East London starting at The Goldsmith’s Tavern, next to Goldsmith’s University in New Cross.

Vic called his stage show Vic Reeves’ Big Night Out and performed it with a local alcoholic called Alan King. It was Alan King who was a lot of the brains behind it, but he wasn’t very good as a performer. He admits that he isn’t. He used to just get up on stage and tell a load of old Tommy Cooper jokes very badly while he was ironing.

Because the show included Vic Reeves’ name, Vic got the cult following. He used to spin a fan round and the audience all knew his catchphrases like Give it a spin! and What’s on the end of the stick, Vic? Now and again, though, he’d come into the alternative cabaret circuit and he did the Open Spot a few times at The Tunnel.

Most times he died.

After Alan King left him, Vic teamed up with Bob Mortimer and, as a favour, I got them a booking at Bracknell Arts Centre. It was an easy place to play, about 90 in the audience in a little cellar. A nice audience.

But, after Reeves & Mortimer played there, people actually signed a petition. They said they never wanted to see Vic Reeves or Bob Mortimer in the building ever again. The whole audience. A year later, the bloke who ran the place was ringing me up offering about £8,000 for them to perform in the big theatre next door.

After a time in the Goldsmith’s Tavern, Vic moved his show down the road to the Albany Empire. Michael Grade of Channel 4 was in the audience one night and that’s how Vic got his first TV series.

Alan King is still about. He’s a little bit resentful about the success that has eluded him. He recently organised a weekly Quiz Night at Up The Creek, which was really just an excuse for him to get up with his band and play. It finished after two weeks to a serious lack of audience.

I was at a club he was tempted to run in Camberwell. He’d had so much to drink he was sick into the empty beer glass and then a little later on he proceeded to drink his own vomit.

As for Vic Reeves, success hasn’t really changed him. He was arrogant before he was successful. I get on OK with him, but he’s difficult to get on with because the surreal nature of the show is actually what he is like. You can have a conversation with him that’s straight out of his show:

“I saw two cabbages walking down the road…..”

It’s a bit like schoolboy jokes where only he and his mates are in on the joke. I didn’t understand it or think it was funny when I first saw it but, if you’re told it’s funny long enough, then it becomes funny.

I now do find Reeves & Mortimer funny, though not hilariously funny. There are some comic moments there. I certainly find it funnier than most mainstream comedy.

I think Michael Barrymore is the best of the current mainstream comics. He’s a South East London boy from Bermondsey. I saw him years and years ago when his act involved standing on his head doing impersonations of an Australian John Cleese. Early in his career, he was heavily backed by the Daily Mirror. They did a story in which they followed an unknown comic and they were going to report on his progress at yearly intervals, which they did. I think that helped him along. He is extremely good at what he does, including interviewing ordinary people. He has just that right tone of cynicism but, like me, he genuinely likes ‘naff’ acts, end-of-the-pier acts. He’s encouraging yet, at the same time it’s rather tongue-in-cheek.

I have sometimes been asked who is the most talented ‘alternative’ comedian who never made it.

The most talented performer who never made it is probably Jerry Sadowitz, because he is a genuinely gifted magician-comedian. I recently read Alexei Sayle quoted as saying he thought Jerry was the only current comic genius.

But I don’t think any of the alternative comedy circuit comedians have actually really ‘made it’. Certainly not Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer. They’re not on the Michael Barrymore/Bruce Forsyth/Cilla Black level. Living in big houses. People like Reeves & Mortimer are about five rungs down that ladder, still slightly fringe comedians. Possibly Lee Evans has done best. In his feature film Funny Bones, he had equal billing with Jerry Lewis.

But Lee Evans started as a mainstream comic and he linked up with the alternative acts probably mainly due to his youth. He was doing the Butlin’s Holiday Camp circuit before he latched onto the Alternative circuit. Lee always gets compared to Norman Wisdom and there are similarities: both were boxers, both became fitness fanatics and they’re both very physical comedians. But Lee was never particularly ‘alternative’.

There are three types of comedy. There’s Mainstream – your bow tie and frilly shirt Jim Davidson show. There’s Alternative – which has some sort of intellectual or even Art content. And there’s just plain Weird.

Some of the Alternative acts latch on to the public consciousness and gain some Mainstream success by changing slightly. None of the really alternative comedians have made it. The very nature of ‘alternative’ means there is a limited audience. The mainstream audience is the people who watch BBC1 at 8.30pm on a weekday. So Ben Elton and Rowan Atkinson have drifted across from alternative into the mainstream. So have French & Saunders, who started off in the Comic Strip club.

Charlie Chuck is a Weird act who should theoretically never make it. But he might if he goes the Freddie Starr route and tones down his act – which he has already started doing to try to appeal to a wider audience since his appearances as ‘Uncle Peter’ on The Smell of Reeves & Mortimer.

Weird is funny, but the general public generally aren’t ready for it. About the nearest you can get to a Weird Mainstream act is Freddie Starr or Spike Milligan.

Some acts, of course, are just too weird to ever make it. Like Ian Hinchliffe.

I heard about him years and years ago, even before I started with The Greatest Show on Legs. Someone asked me:

“Do you want to go and see this bloke called Ian Hinchliffe who eats glass?”

I never went to see him but, years later, I bumped into him when he was in his fifties and saw him in various pub shows where he threw bits of liver around. He was, he said, a performance artist and in one part of his act he pretended to disembowel himself. He had liver and bits of offal in a bag that he pretended was coming out of his stomach. Then he started throwing it at the audience.

One show I saw was in an East End pub with a particularly rough landlord. The liver and offal flew right over the audience’s head, hit the landlord and knocked the optics off behind the bar. The landlord came over to beat him up and Ian Hinchliffe jumped out of the first floor window. He landed on the landlord’s car, putting a big dent in the bonnet. He didn’t perform at that pub again.

At another gig in Birmingham, a member of the audience got up halfway through and left. Ian Hinchliffe stopped the show and followed him home. Quite what the audience felt, I don’t know.

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The black man fails to show up but the god-like comic Simon Munnery shines

Last night, comedy club Pull The Other One’s second monthly show in Herne Hill was packed, so word-of-mouth must have spread about last month’s bizarre events which I blogged about here.

During last month’s show, a very large black man with one eye, a speech defect, a shaven head, a beard and a doctor’s stethoscope round his neck sat in a gold costume alone at a table right in front of the stage occasionally re-arranging half-glimpsed works of art on the surface in front of him. In any other show, he would have been a disruptive distraction but, given Pull The Other One’s unique mix of surreality, alternative variety and downright bizarreness, he actually fitted right in with the show. It turned it into a two-ring circus.

I went to the Half Moon venue in Herne Hill again last night half-hoping the black man and his half-glimpsed mysterious works of art would make a comeback. Alas he wasn’t there. But Charmian Hughes, who had been one of four comperes last month and was one of three comperes last night  (look – it works, it adds to the oddness, so don’t ask) told me:

“That man with the stethoscope gave me a picture of a face which is half pharaoh and half enslaved black man. It’s actually really effective and I’ve hung it up. The title is Was my ancestor illegally detained?’’

Charmian had done a sand dance during last month’s show (again, don’t ask).

“He must,” Charmian continued, “have found it quite a strange coincidence that he went to a show on his night off from Egyptology or whatever he’s into and someone started talking about Egypt and the pharaohs and did a sand dance on stage.”

“Well,” I thought, “It wasn’t just him who found it strange.”

Last night, in an unusual move for Pull The Other One, they actually had three straight(-ish) stand-up comics in among real magic from David Don’t, Sam Fletcher’s fake magic, Charmian’s explanation of the Abelard & Heloise story using pandas, Holly Burn’s… well… indescribably odd performances… and the equally odd Nick Sun’s audience-baiting.

Towards the end of his set, Nick Sun persuaded the audience to show their appreciation (and they were very enthusiastically appreciative of his odd act throughout) to boo him and heckle him and he refused to leave the stage except in silence. He took any clapping as inappropriate and refused to leave except to complete silence. A good bit of memorable schtick.

The three stand-ups included the extremely good Maureen Younger, who shamed me. I was then and still am ashamed because I had never seen her perform before and I am amazed I had not seen someone that good. An absolutely top-notch and clearly highly experienced professional. My only excuse is that she seems to have worked abroad a lot. And that’s not much of an excuse. Woe is me. The shame. The shame.

Steve Jameson’s Borscht Belt character act Sol Bernstein – much admired by many – leaves me a bit cold because I have some general problem with watching live character comedy, which brings me on to Simon Munnery, who is on stunningly good form at the moment.

He was introduced as “a legend” which he certainly is, even though his existence is not in question and has been independently authenticated. He has always been extremely good but I have now seen him twice in two weeks and I am very surprised.

It’s rare for a comic to keep getting better. After a lot of experience, a good comic usually reaches a plateau of excellence. You don’t expect him or her to get better and he or she doesn’t have to. They have reached a plateau of excellence. Simon Munnery reached that plateau ages ago but now seems to be getting even better. It’s not that he wasn’t excellent before, but he is even better now.

As I said, I have a blank and difficult-to-explain spot about character comedy and I was never much impressed (though everyone else was) with Simon’s very early character Alan Parker: Urban Warrior.

I’ve always liked Simon as a person but it wasn’t until I saw Cluub Zarathustra at the Edinburgh Fringe in 1994 that I really started to appreciate his act. I thought the subsequent 2001 TV series Attention Scum! slightly watered-down the amazingly admirable nastiness of Cluub Zarathustra.

Simon’s original character which was OTT with audience-despising Nietzschean superiority and contempt for the audience in Cluub Zarathustra had (it seemed to me) been watered-down into the less-though-still-effective League Against Tedium.

The Attention Scum! TV series (directed by Stewart Lee) was highly original and, legend has it, much disliked by BBC TV executives until it was nominated for the prestigious Golden Rose of Montreux in 2001, at which point they had to feign enthusiastic support despite having already decided not to produce a second series.

Perhaps it was too interesting for them.

Simon’s League Against Tedium and Buckethead character shows were always interesting but sometimes variable – you can see that a man with an orange bucket over his head spouting poetry might partially alienate a more mainstream audience.

I think the less Simon hid behind a character and the more he started to perform as himself (well, as much as any comic does) the better and better and better he became.

In 2003, he contributed to Sit-Down Comedy, the Random House anthology of original writing which Malcolm Hardee and I commissioned and edited to which 19 stand-up comedians contributed short pieces. (Now newly available for download in Apple iBooks for iPad and in a Kindle edition.)

Simon at first submitted Noble Thoughts of a Noble Mind – basically a print version of his 2002 Edinburgh Fringe show which I thought was fascinating. It took me aback that the printed version was even better than the performed version. I think I had seen the hour-long show twice yet, when I read it on the page, I realised I had missed some of the verbal and mental cleverness.

He eventually supplied The True Confessions of Sherlock Holmes, a wonderfully original story. When I read it, it was one of only three times in my life that I have ever laughed out loud while reading a piece of writing (the other two occasions were both Terry Southern books – Blue Movie and one tiny section of The Magic Christian)

Simon wrote The True Confessions of Sherlock Holmes after the publishers of Sit-Down Comedy thought Noble Thoughts of a Noble Mind was too complicatedly experimental. Well, I think they thought it was too original and too intellectual; that’s often a problem with publishers.

And it has always been Simon’s semi-problem. Arguably too clever. Too original.

Until now, quite a lot of his acts – with sections often tending towards performance art – have been slightly hit-and-miss and I think sometimes too dense with intellectual, mental and linguistic cleverness to fully succeed with an only-half-paying-attention mainstream comedy audience. That’s not a criticism of audiences as dim; but sometimes audiences who had not seen Simon perform before were not expecting what they got. You had to pay very close attention.

Last night, there was a gag involving Sisyphus and Icarus which was wonderfully explained, became part of a cluster of linked, overlapping gags and even managed to bring in modern-day, up-to-the-minute economics.

Simon used to be intellectual and much-loved by the Guardian-reading chattering classes of Islington – and he still is. But now he seems to have pulled off the neat trick of losing none of his intellectual content but performing a highly intelligent act which is populist and maintains a uniformity of laughter-making for all audiences.

In other words, he’s bloody funny from beginning to end and has an astonishing act of overlapping, densely-packed gags and observations which in no way dumbs down yet is totally accessible to a mainstream audience.

How he has done it I don’t know, but he has.

I once tried to persuade Simon that we should follow in L.Ron Hubbard’s footsteps and write a book about philosophy which many in the UK would see as a joke but which many in California might read without irony and blindly believe in as a new religion. That way, we could make money now, have a laugh and statues of him might be worshipped in 2,000 years as a God-like figure.

He wasn’t impressed.

Maybe because today many already worship him as a godlike figure in British comedy.

Quite right too.

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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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