Tag Archives: Mel Brooks

Award-winning UK comic to write play about Twin Peaks director David Lynch

Mr Twonkey promotes his Christmas in the Jungle in Brighton

So I had a chat with Mr Twonkey aka Paul Vickers at King’s Cross station in London.

He was on his way back home to Edinburgh. Last year, he won the increasingly prestigious Malcolm Hardee Award for Comic Originality at the Edinburgh Fringe.

“How were your Christmas in the Jungle shows at the Brighton Fringe?” I asked.

“It was so hot,” he told me. “I don’t think people were feeling… They were… It occurred to me that maybe doing a Christmas show in the middle of the summer isn’t such a great idea.”

“But surely,” I said, “with your act, to do a Christmas show at Christmas would be a silly idea.”

“Well,” he replied, “I was pitching it as The only Christmas show on at Brighton in June. Unfortunately, there was another one called The Grotto. And, when I was flyering for it in the street, people were asking me: What’s wrong with you?”

“You are,” I checked, “still doing Christmas in the Jungle at the Edinburgh Fringe this August?”

“Yes.”

“Have you seen the new Twin Peaks TV series yet?”

“No. But I am trying to write a play about David Lynch.”

“Your previous play was Jennifer’s Robot Arm,” I said.

“Yes. That was more kitchen sink drama/science fiction. This would be about people who actually exist.”

“How are you getting the facts?” I asked. “From Wikipedia?”

“Various sources. There’s a few books about him. The trouble is none of them are any good apart from one which is not bad: Lynch On Lynch, which is a series of interviews with him.”

“Does he know anything about himself?” I asked.

“I would imagine there are a few gaps. But there’s also a good documentary online about someone following him around while he’s making Inland Empire.

“And there’s a book coming out in February 2018, published by Canongate Books which has his full support. I think it’s called Room To Dream.”

“So your play,” I asked, “is about… what?”

“I want to focus on is the time he spent in London. The early part of people’s careers is always the most interesting. He was living in a flat in Wimbledon, making a suit for The Elephant Man.

‘You know, in Eraserhead, there’s a little deformed baby. I think he kept it very damp. I think he used chicken and raw animal flesh, moulded it together and used maggots quite a lot – to eat away the face. And then he kept it damp. His daughter wanted to play with it and he told her: You can play with it as long as you don’t touch it.

“After Eraserhead, he was a cult figure – a young hotshot director – and he had a few films he was trying to pitch. One of them was called Gardenback, which was about a community of people who could only speak to each other by passing an insect between them, either through the ear or through the mouth.

“The studio kept pushing him to write dialogue for it and he couldn’t write any. He said: Well, that’s the whole point: that they don’t speak. They communicate by passing the insect. So that project was shelved.

“Then he had another project called Ronnie Rocket, which was for the actor of restricted height in the Black Lodge. It was like Rocket Man, but he was small and it was surreal and it had villains called The Donut Men. But no-one would pick it up.”

“Jam on the fingers?” I asked.

“Yeah. So then they just gave him a pile of scripts and he picked The Elephant Man without reading it. Mel Brooks was producing it.”

“Mel Brooks,” I said, “once told me that, whenever you get your photo taken, you should always open your mouth.”

“Did he? Anyway, Mel Books had had success with Young Frankenstein as a black & white film and I think he quite liked the idea of re-invigorating the genre and Eraserhead had been in black & white.

The Elephant Man was a big responsibility for David Lynch and apparently it was the closest he ever came to committing suicide. He almost put his head in the oven in Wimbledon during the development process. I was going to have a bit in my play where he puts his head in the oven and it turns round and Mel Brooks comes out from a theatre where he has been viewing Eraserhead.”

“This is live on stage?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“Will the insects from Gardenback take part?”

“They could. But I was thinking focussing more around the fitting of the costume. They gave him six months to make a costume for The Elephant Man based on the fact he had done well with the baby in Eraserhead. And apparently what he created was horrendous. John Hurt came round for a fitting and he couldn’t hardly breathe or walk and certainly couldn’t act in the costume.

Mr Twonkey takes a train and a door north to Edinburgh

“So that process was unsuccessful and a lot of money had gone down the drain and I think that was when he thought about putting his head in the oven.”

“And the costume in the finished film?” I asked.

“I think, essentially, he got someone else to make it. There was a bit of controversy on the set because he was young but had experienced British thespians like Sir John Gielgud and Anthony Hopkins who had been round the block a few times. I think there was a friction with young David Lynch adapting to these older British actors.”

“Maybe they didn’t talk about it,” I suggested.

“What?”

“The elephant in the room.”

“That’s a good title.”

“You just have to make the play relevant to the title,” I suggested. “Would you perform in it?”

“I don’t know.”

“You’re the wrong shape for David Lynch,” I suggested.

“I don’t think I could play him convincingly enough for more than 5 or 10 minutes; then I would run out of steam. It needs to be a proper actor.”

“The good news with a play about David Lynch,” I suggested, “is that there’s no limit to the possible surrealism.”

“It can be a BIT eccentric,” Paul agreed. “It can be a bit Lady in The Radiator in Eraserhead.”

“But it can’t all be that. What would give it real poignancy is revealing a bit of his history that people didn’t know about. The main scene would be the fitting, where it goes wrong.”

“Hold on,” I said, “If you are going to do a show about David Lynch making a costume he can’t make, you have to make the costume, don’t you?”

“That’s true.”

“Is that a problem?”

“It will have to be a good costume.”

“The one that isn’t successful…”

“Yes. But it can be really horrendously bad. That will be good.”

Mr Twonkey and Sir Nigel Gresley, Chief Mechanical Engineer of the Great Northern Railway (1911-1923) and the London & North Eastern Railway 1923-1941). He designed The Flying Scotsman train.

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Lindsay Sharman, baptised with a head hunter, is writing a play for Edinburgh

Lindsay Sharman, ex-Christian

Lindsay Sharman, ex-Christian, remembered headhunter this week

“I got religious when I was in Brunei,” comedy performer Lindsay Sharman told me a couple of days ago. “I went to a Chinese Baptist church and they were very nice people.”

“How,” I asked, “do the Chinese Baptists differ from the British Baptists?”

“They speak Chinese,” Lindsay replied. “Though they also spoke English, which helped. I got baptised at the same time as a head-hunter in his nineties. Well, he was an ex-head-hunter. He didn’t hunt heads any more, because he was now a Christian and ancient.”

“What turned you on to Christianity?” I asked.

“Jesus seemed like a nice chap and I thought the world lacked a bit of mystery and magic and I was looking for that.”

“Your father worked for the Shell oil company?” I asked.

“Yes. My parents were agnostic, though my mum suddenly got religious about ten years ago. I stopped believing when I was about 14.”

“Why?”

“I was kind of going off it for a while, In fact, as soon as I got baptised, it was kind of like TICK! Done that! – I think I expected some kind of change and nothing happened and then my father died when I was 14 and I think that tested me a bit more as I was getting no comfort from the idea that he had gone to heaven because I found the whole idea faintly ludicrous.”

“What age did you go to Brunei?”

Lindsay Sharman

Lindsay Sharman was once younger

“We went out when I was 8 and returned to England when I was 14. At that time, it was Moslem in the same way England is supposedly Christian. Although not any more, because the Sultan’s now gotten Islamic. He’s turned super-Moslem. Women are getting stoned for adultery out there now. There was none of that in my time. No-one covered up when I was there: it was all shorts and T-shirts and vests. Although, two years into us being there, the country did go ‘dry’ and they banned karaoke. I was very upset because I had been going to have a karaoke birthday party. I was 9; it was a big thing to me.”

“And now,” I said, “you’re writing a play about religion for the Edinburgh Fringe in August. What’s it called?”

Lindsay Sharman Gives Us The Willies. It’s not really a play. It’s one of those weird Edinburgh things that can only exist in Edinburgh. It’s a play insomuch that it’s not going to be stand-up comedy and it’s going to have a narrative. But don’t ask me details. Everything might change by August.”

“What,” I asked, “was the original, basic idea?”

Mel Brooks once told me to open my mouth when being photographed

Mel Brooks once told me to always open mouth in photos

“The Gospel according to Mary Magdalene, done as a New York Jew: a bit Joan Rivers-esque. I thought I would link the fact they were all Jewish to comedic Jews and the immediate thought for me was Mel Brooks style fast-talking.

“I tried that out and it did go quite well, but then I thought it could be a play-within-a-play. What I don’t like about the Edinburgh Fringe – or what I feel I have to be flexible about in Edinburgh – is that the audience comes into a room which is not actually that suited to performance and you don’t necessarily acknowledge it. I don’t like that. I don’t like watching a show where they haven’t acknowledged they’re in a room in Edinburgh at 2 o’clock in the afternoon.

“So I wanted to fit it into something which allowed her not to be at The Jerusalem Head tavern in wherever. I wanted to acknowledge the fact it was a show in Edinburgh. So then I had the idea of a play-within-a-play about Mary Magdalene but everyone’s buggered-off because it’s the most offensive play there has ever been. All the actors have fucked-off, so it is an audition for new actors and all the audience are potential actors and I am going to audition them. This is my current idea. But it might change out of all recognition in the next few months.”

“So it has continuity of time and place…” I said.

“Yes,” Lindsay replied. “But, at the same time it will be dipping in-and-out of this ‘most offensive’ play about religion.”

“And it’s called Lindsay Sharman Gives Us The Willies…?”

“Yes. Though it might bear no relation to… Well, it might do… There’s going to be stuff about circumcision in there.”

“Cutting edge…” I said.

A Penitent Mary Magdalene by Nicolas Régnier,

Jewish Mary Magdalene by Nicolas Régnier

“Because it’s a play-within-a-play,” Lindsay continued, “it’s going to look at all the issues in the world at the moment. So, for once, I’m going to do something topical. Usually I don’t do anything topical.”

“Burning Moslems?” I asked.

“I might tip-toe around that a bit.”

“Is there a serious kernel to it?”

“Maybe. Who knows? Don’t ask me details. Maybe. I don’t know if there is a way of avoiding the seriousness of the topic. Though you can take any serious topic and give it a light treatment. It will still be totally absurd. And the play is partly going to be about social control and how religion forms part of that. If one person has a beard, everyone has to have a beard. Except the women, of course.”

“Why of course?” I asked. “Will it have multiple characters?”

“It will have… Maybe. Who knows?… Don’t ask me too many details at this point, because it could all change.  I’ve got other things to think about: I’m trying to write a book at the moment.”

Lindsay Sharman last night, as Madame Magenta

Lindsay Sharman performs as Madame Magenta

“Another one?”

“Yes. I’m almost there. I’ve got about four more chapters and then I’m finished.”

“What’s the pitch?”

“It’s a whodunnit, a murder mystery. It’s really complicated, whereas the first one was just ridiculous, so I could vomit that out in no time. “

“A whodunnit in the traditional drawing room sense?”

“Sort of. Yeah. I guess so.”

“Featuring Madame Magenta?”

“Yes.”

“Written in the first person…”

“No. It’s got different perspectives. It switches perspective every couple of chapters.”

“When is this being unleashed on the nation?”

“In about a week and a half.”

“But you haven’t finished it yet!”

The cover of Lindsay Sharman’s novel

Lindsay Sharman’s first Magenta novel

“I’ve got about 10,000 words to do. I can do that in a week and a half. I did the first book in about three and a half weeks.”

“What’s the new book called?”

Magenta 2: The Reckoning.”

“It’s not, is it?” I asked.

“Why not?” I think titles are over-rated.”

“What about My Night of Sex With Tom Cruise and an Armadillo?”

“That’s probably my third book,” said Lindsay.

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“Most people in the mainstream film industry are the scum of the earth”

Lloyd Kaufman last night at his movie premiere

I attended a movie premiere in Leicester Square last night. Well, OK, it was just off Leicester Square. But it was still the British premiere – or it might have been the European premiere – of an American movie.

Well, OK, the premiere was of a movie by Troma Entertainment, purveyors of fine B-movie features such as The Toxic Avenger, Surf Nazis Must Die and Tromeo and Juliet. It was at the wonderfully-cultish Prince Charles Cinema.

Last night’s premiere was of Father’s Day (impressively produced, given it cost $10,000 to make), directed by five Canadians calling themselves Astron-6.

The last movie Troma released was Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead in 2006.

Introducing the new Father’s Day film was Troma’s capo di tutti capi Lloyd Kaufman. There was a queue literally round the block to see him. It is rare to see a Troma movie on the big screen in the UK and pretty-much unique to see Kaufman and his lovely wife of 40 years Patricia Swinney Kaufman, currently New York Film Commissioner. They had an announcement:

“We noticed,” said Lloyd Kaufman, “that there are currently a number of £100 million re-makes of movies that originally cost nothing. Well, Troma is going to do a re-make of a movie that cost nothing and we’re going to do the re-make for less than nothing. We’re gonna re-make Class of Nuke ‘Em High this summer and I will have the privilege of directing it. It will be a bit different. In the re-make, the young teenage couple will be a young teenage lesbian couple.”

This announcement by the neatly-suited man and his immaculately-dressed wife was greeted with whoops and cheers by the full-house audience which was dressed as if for a heavy metal rock show.

“Thankyou for supporting independent cinema and art!” Lloyd Kaufman shouted, when the whoops of joy had subsided.

Off-stage (I saw them before the screening), Lloyd Kaufman and his wife appear to be quiet, rather unassuming American tourists of a certain age. They had just flown in from Paris.

On-stage, Lloyd Kaufman turns into Mel Brooks. A loud, very funny New York Jewish salesman.

“I met Astron 6, who made Father’s Day,” he explained, “because they showed some short films at the TromaDance Film Festival. Then I met one of the Astron 6 people on the set of the re-make of Mother’s Day(The original 1980 version was directed by Lloyd Kaufman’s brother Charles)

“I thought it would be amusing if people would think Father’s Day was going to be a cynical attempt to ride the coat-tails of Charles Kaufman’s Mother’s Day which was being re-made as a big-budget movie. But Father’s Day has absolutely nothing to do with Mother’s Day, which I think is hilarious.

“I do believe,” he said, “that Astron-6 are continuing the Troma tradition of making films that come from the heart and are honest expressions of their soul without any thought to commercial success. Father’s Day is another movie that contributes to Troma’s 40 years of failed film-making.”

In fact, Father’s Day won several awards at last year’s Toronto After Dark Film Festival, including Best Film, Best Trailer and Best Poster.

In its heyday, Troma was always known for its posters. They used to think of a title, then design a poster, then sell it to distributors and, only after that, try to think what the script might be.

“I think,” he said, “that you will see a lot more from these Astron-6 guys in the same way as Trey Parker and Matt Stone (the creators of animated TV series South Park, who, like many, had an early involvement with Troma)

Former Troma guy James Gunn, who wrote and directed their Tromeo and Juliet in 1996, went on to direct the more mainstream science fiction horror comedy Slither in 2006. He was said, at one time, to have written a sadly-unproduced Troma movie Schlock & Schlockability: The Revenge of Jane Austen.

“But James Gunn didn’t write that,” Lloyd Kaufman revealed last night. “Another guy did – he was a postman – I can’t remember his name. We never got anywhere with it. We were hoping to get a British partner but, thusfar, we have not been able to get anybody.”

There have also been stories that Troma are to make Toxic Avenger 5: Toxic Twins.

“We have not yet been able to do that yet,” he explained philosophically. “Since nobody goes to our movies, we have no distribution anywhere and we don’t make any money… Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead, my best movie, will never break even. We were plucked on that film. So there’s no purpose in making a movie unless we really, really love it.

Father’s Day we really loved, the Astron-6 guys were ready-to-go, so we did it. But, with Toxis Avenger 5, I have not gotten to where I really believe in it. Something I can get behind or, at least, get into my behind, is the Class of Nuke ‘Em High Redux. I think that’s something I can really believe in.

“The re-make of Class of Nuke ‘Em High will be shot on video because, finally, the quality of the digital format exceeds 35mm film. But we were always way ahead of the game, because we knew how to make 35mm look like shitty, unfocused, scratched VHS tape 40 years ago. So we’re just going back to our roots.”

Troma movies influenced directors like Quentin Tarantino and gave early work to people like actor Samuel L.Jackson and director Oliver Stone (as an actor).

“I think,” said Lloyd Kaufman, “that the Atron-6 guys will be accepted in the mainstream in the same way that James Gunn and Tarantino and Eli Roth have been. They were all fans of Troma or worked for Troma and want to make money.

“I don’t want to live in a refrigerated carton and be putting my shit in a paper bag, but I’m not able to make it in the mainstream. James Gunn and Trey Parker and Matt Stone and those guys are great people. Most people in the film industry who are in the mainstream are worse than wankers; they’re scum of the earth. But there are a small number who are sensational. And I’m sure that Astron-6 will be able to go mainstream and stay true to their souls and be honest, good, serious artists.

“I guess my message is just do what you believe in. Don’t listen to people. If idiots like me can survive for 40 years making films with hideously-deformed creatures of super-human size and father’s getting boffed up the behind and hard-bodied lesbians and all that sort of stuff, then anybody can do it. To thine own self be true. That is a phrase coined by one William Shakespeare who wrote the best-selling book 101 Money-Making Screenplay Ideas otherwise known as Hamlet

“Do what you believe in.”

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Nine more innocent questions posed by first-time Edinburgh Fringe comedians

A while ago, I blogged Answers to nine common questions asked by innocent first-time performers at the Edinburgh Fringe.

As the Fringe is only a fortnight away – and as I could not bloody think of anything else to blog about today – I felt compelled to answer nine more mythical questions posed by comedians:

1. IF THERE ARE ONLY TWO PEOPLE IN THE AUDIENCE, SHOULD I CANCEL THE SHOW?

No. Even if there is only one person in the audience, perform the show. You do not know who is in the audience (particularly at the Free Fringe and the Free Festival where there are no comp tickets). I have blogged before about an Edinburgh Fringe show performed in the early 1990s by then-unknown comedian Charlie Chuck. There were only four people in the audience. He performed the show. Two of the audience members were preparing an upcoming BBC TV series The Smell of Reeves and Mortimer and, as a direct result, Charlie Chuck was cast as ‘Uncle Peter’ in the series.

2. BUT IF I GET LOW AUDIENCES, I AM A FAILURE, SURELY?

Very possibly, sunshine, but not necessarily. In reality, it means you are an average Edinburgh Fringe performer. Unless you are on TV, you will not get full audiences unless there is astonishing word-of-mouth about your show. Scots comedian Kevin Bridges could not fill a matchbox, even in Scotland. He appeared on Michael McIntyre’s Comedy Roadshow on BBC1. After that, he was filling auditoriums the size of Bono’s ego. What is important at the Edinburgh Fringe is not the size of the audience but the quality of the audience. It is not How Many? but Who? which is important. And don’t call me Shirley.

3. BUT I AM GOING TO THE FRINGE TO GET SEEN BY AUDIENCES, AREN’T I?

No you are not. You are going to the Edinburgh Fringe to lose money. A comic whose name I have tragically forgotten, so cannot credit, likened it to standing in a cold shower tearing up £50 notes. You may have sold your grandmother into sexual slavery to afford this trip to the Fringe, but you are not in Edinburgh to perform shows to ordinary people. If you wanted to do that, you could have gone to the Camden Fringe or down the local pub on a Friday night. You are going to Edinburgh, the biggest arts festival in the world, to get seen by critics and, with luck, by radio and TV people, all of whom can boost your career. If you can create good word-of-mouth among the small audiences who do see your shows at the Fringe, then that may attract a few of the influential people.

4. I AM A COMEDIAN. AUDIENCES ARE NOT LAUGHING ALL THE WAY THROUGH MY SHOW. WHY?

Well, probably because you have a shit show, so tweak it or consider a career working at a call centre in Glasgow. There are some comics who should reconsider their lifestyle and bank balances. On the other hand, most comics are insanely insecure for very little reason. I have sat through many a show where the comedian thinks the audience did not like part of the show because it did not get enough laughs but I know for sure, because I was in the audience, that the punters enjoyed the show tremendously. They were just mesmerised in rapt attention during the quiet but important bits.

5. BUT WHY DON’T AUDIENCES LAUGH AT EVERY LINE?

Possibly because a good comedy script is not 100% laugh-at-every-line. Not over a whole hour. If you think your show is that funny you are either deluded, on cocaine or have a serious psychological problem (not that the last is any drawback in comedy). Watching a man take 10 seconds to jump off a cliff 66 times in a row is not exciting; it exhausts and bores the viewer after a while. What is exciting is a rollercoaster. A build-up followed by an adrenaline rush. Excitement followed by relief followed by excitement followed by relief followed by a climax. Note I never mentioned sex. An hour-long show is about pacing. If you remove the build-up before the punch-line, you will lose the laughter on the punch-line. And I still did not mention sex. Of course, the highly-experienced comic can get three subsidiary titters in the build-up followed by a big belly-laugh on the punch-line. Even (billed in alphabetical order) the brilliant Jimmy Carr, Milton Jones and Tim Vine, who mostly deal in one-liners, have pacing where their audiences can relax amid the laughs. Just like sex, in my experience.

6. SHOULD I WORRY IF I DO NOT GET REVIEWS?

Yes, but it is largely a matter of luck. I always tell people they have to play the Edinburgh Fringe on three consecutive years. The first year, no-one will notice you are there. The second year, you have some idea of how the Fringe works. The third year, people will think you are an Edinburgh institution and the media will pay some attention to you. You have to go for three consecutive years. If you miss a year, when you return, you are, in effect, re-starting at Year One. It is not just audiences but critics who change year-by-year. Critics reviewing shows at the Fringe may not have been doing it two years ago.

7. I ONLY HAVE 30 MINUTES OF GOOD MATERIAL. WAS I WRONG TO ATTEMPT TO DO A 60-MINUTE SHOW?

Yes. You are an idiot. You should have delayed your trip to the Fringe and gone next year. Going before you are fully ready is never a good idea. Yes, go up and play a few gigs on other people’s shows. Yes, go up as part of a three or four person show. But, if you are doing your first solo 60-minute show and you have anything less than 80 minutes of good material, you risk rapid ego-destruction.

8. IF I GET REVIEWS, ARE THE NUMBER OF STARS IMPORTANT?

In Edinburgh, absolutely. The stars are everything – provided you get above three stars. Put four or five stars on your posters and flyers – with short quotes – immediately. All your competitors – and, in Edinburgh ALL other performers, however seemingly friendly, are your deadly competitors – will be using the number of stars on a review to boost their own ego or to try and deflate yours. After the Fringe is over, the stars mean bugger all. They are unlikely to bring in crowds on a wet Thursday in Taunton. But their real value lies next year at the Fringe when you can quote them and they will have some effect. And always remember the admirable enterprise of the late comic Jason Wood. Highly influential Scotsman critic Kate Copstick gave his Fringe show a one star review. The next morning, all his posters in Edinburgh proudly displayed a pasted-on strip saying “A STAR” (The Scotsman)

9. WILL I WIN THE PERRIER PRIZE?

No. Partly because it no longer exists; they seem to call it something different every year. But mostly because you just won’t. Don’t be silly. Fantasy is a valuable part of the performer’s art, but never fully believe your own fantasy. You stand a better chance of winning one of the increasingly-prestigious Malcolm Hardee Awards for comedy – the longest-running comedy awards with the same name at the Fringe. And, unlike their insignificant competitors, the Malcolm Hardee Awards are guaranteed to run until the year 2017. I allegedly organise them, but intentionally try not to be too organised as that would be lacking in respect to Malcolm’s memory. Don’t bother to apply to me because there is no application process, plus it interferes with my chocolate-eating. Your show format is probably neither that original nor, frankly, that good and we will almost certainly hear about anything which actually IS that original. In Edinburgh, word-of-mouth is the strongest thing after a deep-fried Mars Bar soaked in whisky for 20 minutes. The Malcolm Hardee Award judges this year are (in alphabetical order) famed Scotsman critic and Show Me The Funny judge Kate Copstick, inconsequential little old me,  The Times’ esteemed comedy critic Dominic Maxwell and the wildly prolific freelance Jay Richardson. Please feel free to wave £50 notes in our faces and offers of two-week holidays in Barbados with lovely 20-year-old nymphets (that holds for all four of us).

Look, in Edinburgh, the most important thing of all is self-publicity. Thus Malcolm Hardee Week at the Fringe.

To quote Max Bialystock in Mel Brooks’ movie The Producers:

“When you’ve got it, flaunt it, flaunt it!”

Here endeth the lesson and – only temporarily – the self-publicity.

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How to pretend in a blog that you are successful in showbusiness by targeted, relentless b***sh****ng…

Three things have always held me back from a glittering and financially wildly successful career in showbiz: I’m not gay, I’m not Jewish and I’m shit at schmoozing.

Ooh – and I’m spectacularly lacking in any discernible performing talent of any kind.

However, I can bullshit quite well after many years of turning occasional sows’ ears of TV schedules into silk purses in on-air channel trailers.

Someone bemoaning the naivety of North Korean government propaganda in the 1980s once said to me: “You can only do good propaganda if you do NOT believe in what you’re saying. The trouble we have here is that these people believe what they’re saying.”

So, with that in mind, let me tell you all about my glamour-filled afternoon in London’s showbizzy Soho district yesterday.

After lunch, I went to St Martin’s College of Art in Charing Cross Road, forever immortalised in Pulp’s Top Ten hit Common People – “She came from Greece, she had a thirst for knowledge… She studied sculpture at St Martin’s College”.

(See what I did there? It might have sounded irrelevant, but you get tiny amounts of reflected glory from selective name-dropping. Unless that name is Gary Glitter)

The comedian Charmian Hughes was already at the photo studio in St Martin’s, getting publicity shots taken for her upcoming Brighton Festival and Edinburgh Fringe show The Ten Charmandments.

(Always mention quality show names in passing and, again, you will get some slight reflected glory. Never mention inept productions unless it’s the current IKEA TV ad and even then only if you’re trying to capitalise on shitloads of previous hits on your blog.)

I was at St Martin’s to get photos taken of myself for use as publicity at the Edinburgh Fringe. As far as I know, up there in August, I will be directing one show, producing another and chairing two debates.

(Always self-promote, however crass it seems. All publicity is good publicity, unless it involves Gary Glitter.)

Director Mel Brooks once told me (name-drop) during a very brief encounter:

“Always open your mouth when you do it – a publicity shot. It makes you look happier, more extrovert, more full of confidence and that’s half the job!”

A female comedienne, who had better remain nameless (never annoy the Talent) once told me:

“Don’t allow the photographer to take shots of you from a level lower than your chin because a shot taken looking upwards at your face will accentuate any double chins, jowls and flabby bits.”

And I learned a lot once by going to a photo shoot with the very lovely Isla St Clair (name-drop) who was a revelation (give credit where credit is due), offering the camera a continually changing range of angles and expressions for the photographer to choose from.

I am not a natural and I tried my best at St Martin’s, though I seem to have trouble doing that old Hollywood standby – looking over my shoulder at the camera. My neck – like my good self, perhaps – seems to be either too thick or too stiff.

(Self-deprecation can be appealing in the UK, though don’t try it in the US – they see it as lack of self-confidence.)

I hate photos of myself. I may be turning into a luvvie, but I have always realised one thing – I am very definitely not photogenic. (Again, use self-deprecation sparingly if you have a US audience)

Towards the end of the photo session, I started jumping in the air, something The Beatles (name-drop) did much more successfully on a beach at Weston-super-Mare in 1963. My legs are not as good as the 21 year old Paul McCartney’s. (name-drop combined with self-deprecation)

At the very end of the session, I was pouring water into my mouth. It seemed like a good idea at the time. But it turned out not to be. Don’t ask.

After that, I went off to Leicester Square to have tea with stand-up comedian, qualified psychotherapist and occasional PR/marketing guru Shelley Cooper. She told me she has accidentally developed a new on-stage confidence and I advised her to adopt a new approach to performing her comedy. I told her:

“Don’t think of writing comedy material. Instead, think of what really, genuinely gets up your nose, go on stage and rant about it and, through personality, natural comic tendencies and experience, the comedy element will add itself in.”

(That’s more than a bit pompous and a therefore a bit iffy, but the pro factor of being seen to give advice to a psychotherapist probably just-about outweighs the negative factors.)

As I left Shelley outside the Prince Charles Cinema, she turned left, I turned right and almost immediately I bumped into John Park, editor of Fringe Report – he is the man who did not design the Baghdad metro system. I always think he did, but he didn’t. It’s a long story. I still lament the passing of his monthly Fringe Report parties. Fringe Report also gave me an award for being ‘Best Awards Founder’ – basically an award for being the best awarder of awards – something which has always endeared them and him to me. (True, but beware of too-blatant crawling to John Park)

John P told me he has written a play about love called Wild Elusive Butterfly which the Wireless Theatre Company will be recording in the next couple of months for internet streaming and download.

(Always plug something which sounds like it may be very good in the hope of some reflected glory.)

“Is it all singing, all dancing and with a dolphin in it?” I asked John P.

“You know?” he asked me. “Someone mentioned it?”

“Eh?”

“We have a porpoise,” John told me.

“You have a purpose?”

“We have a porpoise – in the play. You know the story of Freddie the Dolphin?”

“I don’t.”

“There was a court case where a man was accused of assaulting a dolphin because he…”

“Ah!,” I said with genuine enthusiasm. “The dolphin-wanking case! I loved it.”

In 1991, animal-rights campaigner Alan Cooper was accused in Newcastle of “outraging public decency” with local aquatic celebrity Freddie The Dolphin by masturbating the dolphin’s penis with his armpit.

“In court,” explained John, “one of the Defence Counsel’s angles was that a dolphin’s penis is a means of communication.”

“I heard it’s not uncommon,” I said. “All round Britain, dolphins are swimming up to people and sticking their penises in the swimmers’ armpits to have a wank. People are too embarrassed to complain or even mention it and you can hardly prosecute a dolphin for sexual harassment. I think that the…”

“Anyway,” said John, “it was a great line and I felt had to have it in the play. A dolphin’s penis is a means of communication. A great line. Although, in my play, it’s a porpoise. I think they may be different.”

“Everyone needs a purpose,” I said.

“I think I have to be going,” said John, looking at his watch.

(When in doubt, make up dialogue, but keep it close to what was actually said and try to add in a dash of self-deprecating humour, if possible. Unless you are trying to impress people in the US.)

Glamour? Glitz? Showbiz sparkle?

I live it every day, luv.

While we were walking through Soho, Shelley Cooper said to me: “That was Suggs.”

“What?”

“On that corner, back there. That was Suggs of Madness talking to Boy George’s ex-boyfriend.”

“Did he recognise me?”

“It’s unlikely,” Shelley said.

“I suppose so,” I agreed.

By the way, the dolphin man was found innocent after several expert witnesses were called.

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The funniest British TV sitcoms are actually tragedies and the latest one is neither British nor a sitcom

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

Last night, I caught bits-and-pieces of a documentary on the making of the classic and still funny BBC TV series ‘Allo ‘Allo – one of the wonderful ensemble sitcoms produced by David Croft – Are You Being Served?, Dad’s Army, Hi-de-Hi!, It Ain’t Half Hot Mum et al.

One night last year, I sat through an entire evening of BBC3 comedy – four programmes – without a single smile. I think the main problem – especially with sitcoms – is that the writers think the object is to write funny lines for funny characters in inherently comic situations.

But, with the exception of David Croft’s various series, I think the classic British sitcoms are almost all, at heart, tragedies. They are centred on unfunny characters in tragic situations.

From Hancock’s Half Hour through to One Foot in the Grave, the central sitcom characters are not funny people. And the situations are not funny.

The Tony Hancock character is a pompous, insecure, humourless and self-obsessed prat – you wouldn’t want to be stuck in a lift with him. But the series are very funny.

The situation in Steptoe and Son is that both flawed characters are trapped by their suffocating relationship. The (again slightly pompous) son wants to escape to a wider, more exciting world but is trapped by a sad old father terrified of losing his son and being alone.

Till Death Us Do Part featured another suffocating relationship where a racial bigot, bitter at life in a modern world he hates and his long-suffering wife are trapped by poverty with their daughter and loud-mouthed, know-it-all son-in-law in a claustrophobic circle of constant arguments and ego-battles. It’s a near definitive situation of personal hell.

In One Foot in the Grave, a bitter, grumpy old man and his wife are trapped in a childless and almost entirely loveless relationship but have been together so long they have no alternatives left. In one masterful episode, they are in bed in the dark throughout; the camera never leaves the room; it transpires at the end that they once had a child who died – hardly the stuff of cliché, knockabout comedy.

Only Fools and Horses is slightly funnier in its situation and in the way it plays, but still features a rather sad and insecure loser at its heart in what, in reality, would be an unfunny situation.

Even The Office (much over-rated) has an unsympathetic and again very insecure central character you would hate to work for or with.

The American, partly Jewish vaudeville-based tradition of TV sitcoms is to have a high laugh-per-speech count written by large teams of gag writers.

The classic British sitcoms which have lasted the test of time are written by single writers or a pair of writers and, ignoring David Croft’s shows (almost a genre in their own right), they tend to have what would in reality be unsympathetic central characters in tragic situations.

Ironically, the most consistently funny situation comedy currently screening on British television is neither a sitcom nor British. At the time of writing, episodes from three different series of the American show are being screened on three different British channels every week – by ITV1 before lunchtime on Saturdays, by ITV3 on Thursday evenings and it is stripped at breakfast time on Quest.

Monk is, in theory, a US detective/police procedural series about a sad and lonely former detective with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, without friends, unable to function in the everyday world and unable to get over the murder of his wife several years ago. Almost every episode has tear-jerking pathos and almost every episode is more genuinely funny than any number of current British sitcoms where the writers are wrongly attempting to put funny lines in the mouths of inherently funny characters dropped into funny situations.

Although it is clearly NOT a comedy series – it is clearly a detective/mystery/police procedural series – over the years it ran (2002-2009) it won three Emmys and had thirteen other nominations in the Comedy Series category.

If you want to know how to write a sitcom, watch Monk.

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