Tag Archives: mental health

Jonathan Hansler on being Basil Fawlty AND Peter Cook and what happened…

Jonathan Hansler spoke to me at Soho Theatre in London

Jonathan Hansler appeared in this blog back in 2012, when a blue plaque was going to be unveiled on the site of Peter Cook’s old Establishment Club in London’s Soho and when Jonathan was going off to the Cannes Film Festival.

This month, he is involved in two separate productions featuring comedy icons – he performs the John Cleese role in Fawlty Towers Live: The Themed Dinner Show throughout the Edinburgh Fringe… and his play about Peter Cook and Dudley MooreGoodbye: The (After) Life of Cook & Moore – plays six dates at Dingwalls in London, starting this Friday.

Pete & Dud, Cook & Moore: show this month

He usually plays Peter Cook but, because of his Edinburgh commitment can’t on this occasion.


JOHN: So you can’t be in the Pete & Dud show in London…

JONATHAN: No. but I’m thrilled because Kev Orkian, who plays Dudley Moore, has taken the reins of producer, which is lovely, because it’s a play I dearly love.

JOHN: You’re getting typed as an interpreter of comedy icons – Peter Cook AND John Cleese.

JONATHAN: How I got interested in the world of entertainment all came from seeing John Cleese and Peter Cook on a park bench doing the ‘interesting facts’ sketch at The Secret Policeman’s Ball in 1979.

I was a little boy and I saw Peter just reeling out this stuff and I thought: That’s what I want to do! Instead of asking for an Action Man that Christmas, I wanted a book of scripts.

JOHN: You co-wrote Goodbye: The (After) Life of Cook & Moore.

JONATHAN: Yes. Some young reviewer wrote: “Fans of Cook and Moore will enjoy hearing the classic lines re-deployed…” Well, we wrote the whole fucking thing. Every bloody line in that is ours.

JOHN: We…?

JONATHAN: Yes. I got stuck on about Page 30. I didn’t know where I was going with it. It didn’t seem to have a structure. Then I re-met Clive Greenwood at a party. He has this incredible knowledge of post-War comedy and he came on board and started to write it with me. He was the more logical one and I was typically like Cook, totally rambling and going off into spirals of imagination.

JOHN: It is set when Pete and Dud are dead.

JONATHAN: Yes. The whole thing is NOT a series of Pete n Dud sketches. Not one. It’s our interpretation of how they are forced to become their characters after they’re dead by a Divine Force that is ‘judging’ them for their Derek & Clive routines. Peter has had to wait seven years for Dudley to turn up and he is running a bar in the afterlife

JOHN: Why did you think: I wanna do a play about two dead comics after they have died?

JONATHAN: My father had died and I no longer had a father figure. Peter became a sort of father figure to me, because I loved his humour so much. I had this idea about all these comics kept in a Prisoner of War camp in heaven in the afterlife. 

Peter and Dudley were the prime focus but other comics are there. I usually play Peter. Kev Orkian plays Dudley – he has been playing the piano since he was 4. And Clive Greenwood plays all the other characters – Tony Hancock, Peter Sellers, Leonard Rossiter, Frankie Howerd, Terry-Thomas… and Lord Reith of the BBC.

I can’t be Peter this time because I’m in Edinburgh doing the Fawlty Towers dinners at the Carlton Hilton on the North Bridge twice daily – 48 shows throughout the Fringe. That ends on 27th August and the last two performances of The (After) Life are on the 30th and 31st August, so I’m going back to London to watch those – and very proudly so.

‘”The only one that does the original scripts.”

Our ‘official’ Fawlty Towers show – sanctioned by John Cleese – is the only one that does the original scripts – so, for the first time in 40 years, people can hear those live.

JOHN: As an actor, you must be frustrated at having to copy someone else’s interpretation so closely?

JONATHAN: No, I’m not, actually. When John Cleese put the Australian show together, he said he didn’t want a carbon copy of himself; so I have a very Cleesian performance, but with my own twist on it.

JOHN: Which is?

JONATHAN: (LAUGHS) I’m not absolutely sure! There’s a lot of improvisation involved, because it’s a dinner show.

JOHN: With the audience sitting as if they are in the Fawlty Towers dining room…?

JONATHAN: Yes. We have to improvise round the tables with my own words and we put the script on top of that.

JOHN: What else do you have in the pipeline?

JONATHAN: One of the biggest things is an initiative I helped set up (with Andrew Eborn) called Canned Laughter. A lot of comedians and people who drink have this false laughter or they play games so we don’t know what lies behind. So I opened up an initiative with Equity with the slogan

IT’S OK NOT TO BE OK

The nervous energy which performers have is anxiety – and that’s where the problems start… Depression and all those things that lurk underneath and I’ve been through them all and, coming out the other side of booze, you start to realise where you have been and what you’ve come to and what you have to do to stop other people going down the same path.

Jonathan’s drinking days are behind him…

JOHN: How long have you been off the booze?

JONATHAN: 5½ years. And off sugars. I used to be: I’ll do every pill in the world! I’ll do every cigarette in the world! I’d do every drug in the world! I’d go to every club in the world!

JOHN: And now you have taken up knitting cardigans?

JONATHAN: (LAUGHS) No! My revolution and my rebellion comes in my writing, I think.

JOHN: You are writing other things?

JONATHAN: I am writing, but I am terrified. I am going to eventually do an hour’s stand-up on anxiety and about my childhood. I don’t give a fuck if people know now. I was abused. That’s why I wear blue chakra round my neck – because I was orally abused twice. at different times, I was in a school which had a paedophile headmaster and…

JOHN: What’s a blue chakra for?

Jonathan’s blue chakra with its healing sodalite stones…

JONATHAN: The blue chakra is the throat chakra, which is about the art of communication. This is a stone called sodalite and it actually gives… whether you believe it or not; a lot of people don’t and that’s fine… but I need something to believe in because of my past so I can’t help but believe in it and I’m happy to believe in it. As mad as it gets, that’s what I have to believe in, because they tried to hang me twice… Once when I was in my prep school and once in my senior school.

JOHN: Who tried to hang you?

JONATHAN: The kids. Y’know. Just brutal kids. Really brutal kids. There is a huge court case going on about my old school and paedophilia. There were boys who had it far worse than me.

There was one guy who forced me orally to do what I had to do. I think he was probably being abused himself. I think the kids who were being abused were picking on other kids who weren’t being abused. It was horrendous. Just horrible, horrible, horrible.

That’s another reason why I’ve done Canned Laughter.

JOHN: Peter Cook drank a lot.

JONATHAN: A director once said to me – after I got sober: “The reason why you can play Peter so well is because you were both on similar paths of self-destruction.”

Peter Cook (left) and Jonathan Hansler: very parallel people

We are very parallel. Very parallel people. That sense of loneliness. I was sent away to a boarding school at 9 years old like Peter. My parents went to the Middle East; his parents were in Gibraltar. He had asthma and, in those days, they didn’t have inhalers, so he was injected with ephedrine which sent you to the ceiling. He must have been floating around on the ceiling every night. No wonder his mind became the mind it did because he was being given these strange drugs to stop his asthma.

JOHN: Presumably talking about what happened to you at school is, to an extent, cathartic.

JONATHAN: I’ve got to a point where I don’t give a shit. I also want to explain why I’ve been maybe so awkward over previous years.

“…the anxiety it takes to play Basil Fawlty…”

Why is it – and it’s a stigma – that people say: “Performers are difficult to work with”? Have they ever asked why? God knows what happened to them earlier in life. And they still have to keep their teeth smiling and their tits up in this industry and bow down and cow down to all these people who… Y’know?… It’s wrong. People should know each other more and understand each other more and, by understanding each other, we grow together and we become real.

JOHN: I know comedians rather than actors but, to an extent, it IS true that all comedians are mad. You wouldn’t want to do it otherwise. There has to be something in you that needs the fulfilment of applause and acceptance.

JONATHAN: People say: “Oh, you’re so lucky to be playing Basil Fawlty…” But do you know the anxiety it takes to play Basil Fawlty?”

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

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

Michael Livesley – after and before

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

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

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

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

The original President Obonjo cast a pod

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

More of this in a future blog.

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

Samantha’s dossier aims “to ignite potential”

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

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

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

Tony Slattery and Samantha Pressdee bonding in Edinburgh

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

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

The gaffer-taped Fringe shoes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Juliette Burton: Defined as an erotica-reading introvert extrovert performer

“I have now moved to the label of ‘single’…”

Juliette Burton’s new show Defined has just opened at the Edinburgh Fringe. So…


JOHN: What’s it about?

JULIETTE: How we define ourselves and the labels we use. I was labelled as ‘engaged’ last year and I have now moved to the label of ‘single’.

JOHN: But not ‘vacant’.

JULIETTE: (LAUGHS) No. Certainly not my mind. There’s too much to think about. I started using a dating app after I broke up with my fiancé and, when I was filling out the dating profile, I realised they tend to ask you to tick either/or boxes:

Male/Female

Straight/Gay

Left/Right politically

It got me thinking about the extremes we sometimes get pushed towards – optimism/pessimism – introvert/extrovert – whereas we are maybe somewhere in the middle or are both at various times.

In the past, I have been defined by a whole list of mental health conditions and sometimes, in previous shows, I may have defined myself through the mental conditions I have, like a ‘mental health comedy girl’. Whereas, in fact, there’s a lot more to it.

Juliette Burton: in last year’s Butterfly Effect

I have been writing this show for ages and the main thing I want it to be is… well, I did a national tour of the previous show Butterfly Effect and, in that, I started testing out material for this show.

I genuinely think the new show is the funniest I have ever done and the only thing I want to be defined as now is funny.

JOHN: Do the dating apps ask what you do for a living?

JULIETTE: Yes. And I always wonder: Am I Theatre or am I Comedy? I used to think I was Theatre, but now I think I’m Comedy.

JOHN: So what do you put on the dating apps as a job?

JULIETTE: ’Journalist’ usually. (LAUGHS) I’m a journalist at heart. My shows are truthful and I don’t like dishonesty generally. One of the problems in saying you are a ‘comedian’, of course, is that you get asked: “Tell us a joke, then!”

JOHN: How do you react?

JULIETTE: I usually tell them that’s like me asking them to act out their job.

JOHN: You also do voice-over work.

JULIETTE: Yes. I have done educational language tapes and sung songs for people learning English as a Foreign Language. I’ve done corporate training videos. I’ve done audio books for children and adults. Usually I do newly-published books.

JOHN: And for the blind…

JULIETTE: I used to do audio books for the RNIB. That’s how I got into voice-over work.

JOHN: Why did you start?

“Do you do all the voices in the erotica…?”

JULIETTE: Two reasons. One is I used to work as a newsreader for BBC Radio, which led into voice-over work. And I also got into audio books because my granny had gone blind by the end of her life but her mind was so sharp and she just used to devour audio books. The local library had to ship in audio books from across the country because she kept getting through them so quickly. I always tried to think about her when I was recording audio books… (LAUGHS) except when doing erotica.

JOHN: You do all the voices in the erotica?

JULIETTE: All the voices.

JOHN: So Lady Chatterley AND Mellors…

JULIETTE: Exactly. (LAUGHS) Everybody needs to experience the full kaleidoscopic beauty and glory that is being alive.

JOHN: Is it mildly embarrassing?

JULIETTE: Oh yes. Especially when the studio engineer is your ex-fiancé.

JOHN: That happened?

JULIETTE: Yes, And I talk about it in my show. The last erotica book I recorded was just about a month after we broke up, in the middle of the heatwave last year. It was very awkward and we started having arguments about how you pronounce words like EE-THER or EYE-THER in the now-infamous sentence: “He could have licked either of my lactating nipples”… That’s a genuine sentence I had to read.

That book was actually – for erotica – very well researched. But, in all the books I’ve done – maybe 50 or more – I have only done 2 or 3 erotica.

JOHN: Has the voice-over work impacted – a horrible American word – on your stage performances?

JULIETTE: Yes. It has forced me to really get better at my accents. My repertoire has got much stronger with accents in general. Also, when you record audio books, you are speaking to just one person, you are not speaking to a whole audience in a group. 

I now like thinking about that when I am on stage. Although it is a whole audience, you are really still just appealing to that one person who is experiencing your show. So it teaches you how to be a bit more personal and personable.

“Shows CAN change your perception…”

I want every single person in the room to feel special. It sounds saccharine. It IS saccharine. But shows CAN change your perception of and perspective on the world and your attitude towards yourself. I have been to shows like that and I want every audience member to leave my shows feeling like they can take on the world and they have more fortitude, more resilience because of the show.

This last year has been a hard one for me. The break-up with my fiancé was the right thing, but it was hard. And I’ve had quite a few recent deaths in my family – and friends – A friend passed away earlier this year. Even my therapist for the last ten years passed away, which I thought was hilarious at the time. 

JOHN: Why?

JULIETTE: Because she was the one person I could actually turn to.

The thing that kept me going was the fact I had to perform a show at the Edinburgh Fringe in August. I had to do all my previews before that and there would be audiences out there who needed to laugh about dark things in their lives.

JOHN: You are very likeable, bright and bubbly on stage… Sally Sunshine.

JULIETTE: I hope I’m not too TV kids’ presenter any more because I don’t feel like that any more. I am trying to move away from saccharine stuff.

JOHN: You’ve changed?

JULIETTE: I think so. I think I was quite naive. Now I’ve come down to earth and I’m a bit more grounded. But I still want all my audience to feel like they’re part of a community. When I did that national tour last year, it made me realise the value of a comedy show to help unite groups of complete strangers. If they can laugh about things like mental illness and grief, then they become a kind of community on that one night. Especially in these times when people feel quite divided politically and socially. 

JOHN: You were involved in the recent Pride events. Why? You’re not gay.

JULIETTE: Well, sexuality is fluid.

“…where no-one will talk to me…”

JOHN: Fluid is definitely in there, yes.

JULIETTE: I was invited to join in by someone who works for the mental health charity SANE. I ended up wearing an amazing feather headdress on the SANE float and I look completely blissed-out in the photographs – not because I’m feeling super-confident but because I’m thinking, on that float in this crowd of people, Finally I have found somewhere where no-one will talk to me.

JOHN: Why is that good?

JULIETTE: Because I’m a very introverted person.

JOHN: So you don’t like people talking to you…

JULIETTE: Why do you think I stand on stage and hold a microphone for an hour talking at them? 

When I am flyering in the street, I think I feel more naked than when I’m on stage. You are more prone to rejection when you’re flyering. I am a very introverted extrovert.

That’s part of what the new show is about. You can be an introverted extrovert. You can be an optimist AND a pessimist. You don’t have to be one thing or the other.

JOHN: But you tend to stand next to the door and chat to the audience as they come in…

JULIETTE: Yes. Because then they are individual, special people who are there for their own experience of the show. They are individuals, not a whole big collective. I want every single person to know they matter because, without those people coming to my shows… It’s all about finding other people who want to hear what I have to say and can relate to what I have to say…

JOHN: You are working on a book. What’s it about?

JULIETTE: How to be relentlessly positive and how to find the light in dark times.

 

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How to perform a comedy show to an audience with dementia in a care home

Ben Targét (left) & Pope Lonergan are working on a project

So I chatted to comedy performers Pope Lonergan and Ben Targét…

“The two of you have this joint project,” I said. “Does it have a name?”

“At the moment,” Pope told me, “it just has the banner title of The Care Home Tour. One thing we are doing is a three-hour Alzheimer’s benefit Forgetting But Not Forgotten, organised with Angel Comedy at the Bill Murray in London on 2nd October. Lots of different comedians.”

“It’s a great line-up,” said Ben. “Richard Gadd, Lou Sanders, Robin Ince, Candy Gigi, lots more.”

“And,” said Pope, “we are doing two Work In Progress shows in the lead-up to that. We are doing those with Fight in the Dog, which is Liam Williams’ production company. The whole thing is being supported by NextUp and they’re partially funding it.”

“And these shows lead to?” I asked.

“A performance that is specifically tailored for an audience with dementia in a care home. I mean, anyone can enjoy it, but the feed line/punch line of a conventional joke is too complicated. They can’t follow the logic of it. Instead, they respond with a visceral, limbic response to visual comedy and physical comedy – the slapstick stuff.”

“What is limbic?” I asked.

Cross section of the human brain showing parts of the limbic system from below. (Illustration from Traité d’Anatomie et de Physiologie, 1786)

“The limbic system,” Pope explained. “When we process music. It’s an emotional response, a visceral response; it’s like our primitive brain. It’s what develops early in children. There’s a correlation between child development and mental deterioration.”

“So the humour,” I said, “must not be too sophisticated.”

“A perfectly-structured joke is not gonna land,” said Pope.

“It’s got to be driven,” Ben added, “by the visual rather than by words. How the residents are stimulated is no longer through wordplay or story.”

“But they can,” I checked, “be stimulated through sound and music and audio effects?”

“Yeah, yeah,” said Pope. “100%. Even when they have really advanced dementia, if you start singing something like Knees Up, Mother Brown, they all know the words.”

“Is there,” I asked, “a difference between dementia and Alzheimer’s?

Pope explained: “Alzheimer’s is a form of dementia. Dementia is the umbrella term. There’s Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Huntington’s… My nan and David Baddiel’s dad both had Pick’s Disease – frontal lobe dementia – and that made my nan very libidinous. She was having sex with a lot of the men in the care home.”

“At what age?” I asked.

“About 85. She done well. Every time we went in, one of the carers would come over to my dad and say: Mark… A word? And my dad would come out pale, saying: Yer nan’s been at it again.”

“Is anyone going to be offended if I print that?” I asked.

Ben Targét & Pope Lonergan take afternoon tea

“No, no,” said Pope. “Good on her, you know? People with dementia obviously have diminished responsibility. They don’t really know what they’re consenting to etc, so there’s a line. But we have a husband and wife in the home who have been married 60 years. We have caught them in flagrante having sex and some people have said: We need to stop them. But that was not policy. It was just some people projecting their own discomfort. They are a married couple. They are adults. They are married. Why on earth would you stop them?”

“At a certain age,” said Ben, “we stop seeing people as adults and they become infantilised in our eyes. I don’t know if we are trained to or whether it is innate.”

“And that’s where it’s tricky,” Ben added. “Infantilised means dehumanised. The efficacy of their brain is not what it used to be but they are still adult, complex human beings.”

“I can say,” I checked with Pope, “that you work in the care industry?”

“Of course you can,” he told me.

“I am always wary,” I explained, “about saying comedians have a ‘proper’ daytime job because punters want to think of them as full-time professional comics.”

“Most of us have proper jobs,” said Ben.

“But sometimes don’t want to admit to it,” I suggested.

“We should, though,” said Ben. “I think it makes us way cooler. You get far more respect from people if you are grounded in reality.”

“Yeah,” said Pope. “Some comics think they are de-legitimised by it – Oh, my God, I’m actually part of the real world! I actually have a real job!”

“So you work in a care home,” I said to Pope, “but Ben, how did you get involved in this?”

“I used to work in care homes as well,” he told me, “as a teenager – when I was about 16 or 17. And recently Josie Long introduced me to Pope because he was looking to work with people who do physical and visual comedy. So I am trying to assemble a troupe who are willing to embrace the project.

October 2nd Benefit before the gig on 9th

“We are building to this first gig on October 9th in the care home and we do think of it as like the first exploration vessel that’s been sent out. We are hoping to reassess afterwards and then, in the New Year, do more gigs across the country in care homes.”

“There are,” Pope said, “loads of comedians who have expressed an interest. Sara Pascoe used to do theatre productions for people with dementia in care homes.”

“And there’s David Baddiel,” Ben added. “And Adam Riches – who has a lot of experience in his family of dementia and caring for people. And Phil Nichol. I’m interested to see Phil because, every time I have seen him, he’s got naked on stage and yelled at the audience!”

“Then,” said Pope, “there’s John Kearns. And Deborah Frances-White has been very supportive: she was the one who got David Baddiel interested. And Josie Long has been vital in putting it all together.

“I had done some of Josie’s gigs at the Black Heart. I was trying to figure out a way to incorporate my experiences in the care home into my stand-up act.

“Josie said: I’d love to see you bring your authentic experience of working in the home to your act. I told her: The problem is there’s a bit of dualism there. The way they act is not like the normal way ‘we’ behave. So you love the residents, you’re compassionate, you really care for them, but there is also a day-to-day blackly comic streak that you can’t put on stage because it would just sound horrible: that you are laughing at vulnerable people.

“The first time I done it, it was a bit too nasty, really. I didn’t intend it to be like that, but I hadn’t honed the material and it just came across as a bit mean-spirited. Afterwards, this woman who was apparently a High Court judge was shouting at me about it. It’s sort-of a tight-rope walk.”

“Even more so,” I suggested, “when performing to people with dementia?”

Josie Long said: “I’d love to see you bring your authentic experience to your act.”

“There are so many different types of dementia,” said Pope. “With some, the language centre (in the brain) has really diminished. Some have still got linguistic capacity – really good – they can process it. But still the normal, conventional joke is a bit too convoluted for them. So I always do things like shit gymnastics or shit karate. Anything that’s a minor spectacle they really respond to and laugh at.”

“Surreal,” I said, “rather than verbal.”

“Oh, absolutely,” said Pope. “Anything that is a minor spectacle and visual and silly. If you do wry observational comedy about Donald Trump, it won’t work.”

“Will seeing comedy,” I asked, “actually help them or is it just passing the time?”

“It is definitely better for their welfare,” said Pope, “in that there is a deficit in certain types of stimulation. When it comes to interaction, they don’t want to get up and be physically active, but they do want to be engrossed in something. They do want to sit there and watch something.

“We have told the comedians who are involved that they will have to re-calibrate their idea of what a successful gig is. There ain’t gonna be uproarious laughter. There ain’t gonna be the energy of a comedy club. But, even if the audience are not outwardly laughing, it doesn’t mean they are not stimulated and enjoying what they are watching. They always feel better after they have experienced some kind of entertainment.”

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‘Queer As Jokes’ – The new LGBT comedy night starting this weekend

Simon Caine, begetter of the Queer As Jokes night

Simon Caine, begetter of Queer As Jokes night

So, this Sunday, I am going to a new monthly LGBT comedy night – Queer As Jokes – at Angel Comedy’s Bill Murray venue in London. The evening is being organised by Simon Caine, who runs the comedy industry Facebook group The Comedy Collective and the interview-based Ask The Industry Podcast.

“You are full of ideas and projects,” I told him. “What do you do in your ‘day job’?”

“It is probably,” he told me, “60% or 70% writing jokes for brands for Twitter and Facebook and then 15% I do stuff for clubs and stuff – helping them out with their social media – helping them, basically, build a community around what they’re doing.”

“Do you work from home?” I asked.

“It depends on the job,” he told me, “but I have an office at home. I have psychological problems which mean I am so used to living in one room that I have put the bed in the kitchen along with a cupboard where I keep my stuff in. It’s a one-bedroom flat. So, in the room that is meant to be a bedroom, I have put a desk in the middle and do my work in there.”

“Why?” I asked.

Simon editing his Ask The Industry podcast at home

Simon edits his prestigious Ask The Industry podcast at home

“I just like having all my stuff in one room so, when I cross the corridor, I feel like I am travelling to work. A girl who came there was a little taken aback.

“She asked me Why have you put your bed in the kitchen? and I told her Because I like all my stuff in one room. She asked me: Doesn’t that get confusing? I told her: It’s more comfortable for me. Why would it be confusing?

“Does this one-room thing,” I asked, “go back to your student days?”

“Well,” Simon told me, “I lived at home until I was at university. I lived in one room at uni and then I moved back to my parents’ house and, when I moved in with my girlfriend, we lived in one of the rooms in a one-bedroom flat because her mum was living in the living room… It’s a long story… And then I moved back to my parents’ place and then I moved out and now I just like being in one room. I’m sure I will slowly edge back into having a bedroom separately.”

“Anyway,” I said, “why are you starting an LGBT night? You are not gay. What do you know about such things?”

“I am,” he explained, “running it with Tom Mayhew, the gay comedian. I put myself down as an ally for LGBT stuff but, no, I can’t properly relate to it, cos I’m not in that and never really been in that. For a long time, I was pansexual.”

Simon performing (Photo by Viktoria DeRoy)

“You are attracted to woodland creatures and play a flute?” (Photo by Viktoria DeRoy)

I asked: “You are attracted to woodland creatures and play a flute?”

“No,” Simon said, “you are attracted to someone personality-wise. You can see their sexual attractiveness but you very rarely find them sexually appealing until you’ve got to know them.

“That was how I defined my sexuality for about four or five years but, in the last three months of last year, I met two girls who I immediately found sexually appealing which was weird, because I hadn’t found that for ages. So that was interesting. I am straight, but it’s kinda complicated. I find men attractive, but I’ve never found them sexually appealing. It’s kinda weird like that.”

I asked: “You mean you find men aesthetically attractive?”

“Yeah. Yeah. I dunno. I’ve got a weird relationship with my gender at the moment. I’ve got a lot of polyamorous friends and a lot of kink friends and all of them say regular comedy nights are very heteronormative and very geared towards straight people.”

“So,” I asked, “that is why you’re starting this monthly LGBT night?”

Simon Caine - Buddhism and Cats

Simon’s comedy at the Edinburgh Fringe

“It’s more because I realised I was bored of the comedy circuit. It’s awful at the moment. There are a lot of straight white men talking about Tinder and their failed dating lives. I’ve got a lot of friends who are in LGBT or another minority group who don’t get booked as often as they maybe should. Why not? And does it mean they don’t get to develop as much as other acts who get more stage time?… How many clubs have you been to in the last two weeks where they’ve had a person overtly talking about their sexuality who wasn’t straight? I just thought I would put on a new gig where I would actively look for new voices I had not heard.”

“But,” I suggested, “is having gay people talking about being gay in an LGBT night not restricting them in their own niche pigeonhole?”

“Everyone,” suggested Simon, “gets pigeonholed at some point when they get to a certain level.”

“So,” I said, “you are going to run these Sunday night LGBT shows every month?”

“We are going to do the first four monthly nights as a charity thing and then, after that, depending on how it goes, we would run them as a monthly pro gig (i.e. paying the acts).”

“They are themed?” I asked.

“Yes. The themes we have down for the four shows are… January – New Years… February – Anti-Valentines… March – Anti Steak and Blowjob Day… And, for April, we will probably do April Fools.”

“Anti steak and blowjobs?” I asked.

Simon Caine strikes me as a glass half full man

Simon Caine strikes me as a glass half full man

“Yes,” said Simon. “Some men got together and said they hated Valentine’s Day because it was ‘for women’ and they wanted ‘a day for men’ so they started a steakandblowjobs website for men. Ours would be an Anti Steak & Blowjob Day night.”

“Ah,” I said. “And, given that you are always full of new ideas…beyond the monthly Queer As Jokes nights… any other projects?”

“I have,” said Simon, “briefly talked to a friend of mine – a black comedian – about starting a black gig later in the year. Obviously, I would not be performing in that.”

“You could black up?” I suggested.

“No,” said Simon.

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How to become a comedy promoter? – Tim Rendle stripped for a policewoman

Tim Rendle in London’s Leicester Square

Tim Rendle in London’s Leicester Square, near the Lion’s Den

Last night, I went to the weekly Tuesday night Lion’s Den Comedy Club (aka Comedy Car Crash) in London’s Shaftesbury Avenue, run by Tim Rendle.

How do you become a comedy club promoter?

If Tim Rendle is anything to go by, then fuck knows.

He has been a painter, barman and baby sitter, web designer, magician and spy hole fitter. He has sold windows and doors, installed security systems, flipped burgers, busked with a drum and his first ever self-employed job was as a car washer when he was nine.

There is also a bit of controversy, because the Lion’s Den is a pay-to-play club. Acts have to pay to appear on his comedy night and there is no quality control at all.

“So,” I said when I met him, “pay-to-play. Terrible idea. Why do comics have to pay to perform? Why can’t you just make money from punters paying on the door to get in?”

Comic Johnny Vegas (left) with Tim at the Lion’s Den

Johnny Vegas (left) with Tim at the Den

“It’s really hard,” he told me, “to get an audience for open mic nights. We have an open door policy. We don’t require videos or CDs in advance for acts to perform. I’m happy to have first-timers and, as a result, on the circuit now, some of the biggest names did their teeth-grinding at the Lion’s Den and the Comedy Car Crash.”

“You are getting money out of comedians who can’t afford it,” I said.

“If you want to be a swimmer,” Tim replied, “you go to swimming classes. If you want to be a gymnast, you go to gymnast classes. All of them charge more than we do. It’s a spot. It’s a stage to work material out on. It’s not a bad thing. We’re not… what’s the word…”

“Exploiting?” I suggested.

“Yeah, that’s the word,” said Tim. “We are not exploiting anyone. They can get a spot anywhere else if they want.”

I told him: “I saw an act a few weeks ago at the Lion’s Den and I thought he might be slightly… deluded?”

“Yes,” said Tim, “But he has a right to play, same as anyone else. The club is a massive part of my life. I’ve never been so loyal to any thing or person. I’ve been doing it for ten years now, which is a quarter of my life.”

“You were brought up Amish,” I said.

“Yeah. Amish-ish. The Hutterian Brethren, down in Robertsbridge in East Sussex.”

“There is a community of Amish down there?” I asked.

Hutterian women return from working in the fields at sunset. (Photograph by Rainer Mueller)

Hutterian women return from working in the fields at sunset. (Photograph by Rainer Mueller)

“Yeah. When I was 1½, we moved from Lincoln to this Amish commune where my grandparents lived. My mum was brought up in a different commune in Shropshire. I stayed there until I was five, then came out into the real world, which was an eye-opener.”

“Did the Amish start to your life scar you?”

“No. I think it gave me a really good set of morals. Maybe a bit too unrealistic in the real world.”

“Being too honest?”

“Yeah. It’s just how honest, isn’t it? Knowing when not to be honest. Or knowing when to shut up. It’s the tree that grew inside me, so I do try to be nice and honest.”

“What did you want to be when you were aged 16?”

“I’m not sure. I didn’t have the happiest of family lives. When I was 16, basically, I wanted to get the hell away from home as soon as possible, so I joined the Army. I was accepted by them, but they said I had to do my GCSE exams.

“Then, on the way to sit my second GCSE, I got run over. I was riding my motorbike to school and a car smashed into my leg. That upset the Army. They said: We don’t want you any more. That was a bit sad, because it meant I had to stay around home a bit more.

“Then, a couple of years later, I got run over again. That time, I put my face through a car – the window of a car.”

“Why?”

“Because the driver was an idiot. He signalled left but did a U-turn. I tried to overtake him, he cut me off, so I went through his windscreen. My girlfriend went under the car.”

“She was OK?”

“She bruised her ankle and got a bit of petrol inside her. I ripped my neck open, got 35 stitches plus a few in my chin. I did pass out through lack of blood. That was just the start of it, really. Then the Crohn’s Disease kicked in just after that second crash and I started to think: Why the fuck does God hate me so much?”

“What does Crohn’s Disease do?” I asked.

Tim developed Crohn’s Disease when he was younger

Tim developed Crohn’s Disease when he was younger

“Fucks your life,” replied Tim. “Makes you skinny.”

“So you had accidents and disease rather than a career start?” I asked.

“I don’t think I’ve had a career ever. I wasn’t able to think about the future. Every time I did, I got gazumped by Fate at the last minute.

“We had moved down to Hastings when I was 5 and, when I was about 20, I was being hassled by my mum to get a job. I was getting so much nagging by my mum to get a job and I saw an ad to be a stripogram and my mum said Go on, then! so I did.

“It was the weirdest job interview I’ve ever had – having to take my clothes off and bend over in front of people who then told me: You’re gonna have to shave your arse. Women don’t like it and there are times when you need to bend over.”

“Can you make a good living as a stripogram around Hastings?” I asked.

“At the time – 1994-ish – yeah. £11 per minute.”

“An anecdote?” I asked.

“Loads. I was getting ready in a police station and they had sectioned off a toilet just for me to get ready.”

“This,” I asked, “was to pull a surprise on a police lady?”

“Yeah. I was actually technically sexually assaulted by that woman in front of about 150 police people.”

“Any tricks of the trade?” I asked.

“Basically,” explained Tim, “when male strippers warm up, they have to… eh… punish… erm…”

“Fluff?” I suggested.

“Yeah. Fluff. But, with my bad back from the car crashes, there was no way I’m going to bend down there. So I just had to punish it a bit.”

“A bit of slap and tickle?” I suggested.

In the police station - slap, tickle and elastic bands

The police station – lots of slap, a little tickle and elastic bands

“Yeah. More slap than tickle. And then you get an elastic band and you tie it off. Halfway through doing it in the police station toilet, a policeman opened the door. It was a weird situation with me halfway through slapping myself into position. He asked: Are you going to be long? I told him: I am trying, sir; I’m trying.”

“What’s the elastic band thing?” I asked.

“You tie yourself off,” explained Tim. “Once you have achieved a good… eh… state of being, you tie it off to preserve that state of being.”

“Keeping the blood in…” I said.

“Yeah,” said Tim. “It just makes it took great inside a g-string or banged against a tea towel.”

“But you gave all that glamour up,” I said, “for what?”

“Many years later, I moved to Colchester and did a full-time 2-year engineering course. I wanted to take that further and do industrial design.”

“You were still interested in erections?” I asked.

“No. I wanted to be an inventor, basically, because that’s the way my mind works. I’ve got an engineering mind, but I find engineering very boring – working out how much force a bridge can take is really boring. I wanted to make things and make the world a better place. I did the degree and found out they are just painting the wheel a different colour.

“But, while I was doing the degree, a friend I was staying with suggested I try his job out and that’s when I started working with people who have learning disabilities and in mental health. I became a support assistant.”

“I couldn’t do that,” I said. “Too depressing.”

“No,” Tim said, “not at all. It was one of the best jobs I ever did. I found the learning disabilities not particularly challenging. I tended to veer more towards the challenging behaviour and that led to the mental health work.”

“What do you mean by ‘challenging behaviour’?” I asked.

Where mental health meets kick boxing

Where mental health meets comedy and kick boxing

“Getting beaten up, basically. They were quite angry and violent people. A lot of the job was pacifying behaviour and basically being a target.”

“Trying to avoid them beating you up?”

“Yeah. Which I was pretty good at.”

“Because you are good at psychology?”

“Good at psychology and because I used to do kick boxing. There was nothing that I had not had worse.”

“So,” I said, “you are the ideal comedy promoter. You deal with mad people and can kick them.”

“I’ve had a few hairy situations. We have only ever had two violent incidents in ten years at the Lion’s Den.

“I once walked into a situation where six people were trying to pull an act off an audience member who he was beating the crap out of. They couldn’t get him off. I walked up and just managed to put my hand across his face and pull him backwards, which separated them instantly.”

“What was the problem with the act?”

“It was an act just assassinating every woman in the audience – being really horrible. Nasty. It wasn’t comedy.”

“And is the act still around?”

“I’ve not seen him since and I think he’s lucky, because the police were after him.”

Tim Rendle has had an interesting life, which continues.

There is a video on YouTube of Darius Davies introducing a performance by Sweet Steve at the Lion’s Den.

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What is it like to expose your psychotic hallucinations, live on a comedy stage?

Juliette and I talked at King’s Cross station

Some say you can never be too intrusive when recording…

In the absence of comedy critic Kate Copstick, who is cyber-trapped in Kenya by a malfunctioning computer and an eccentric mobile phone, I recorded our weekly Grouchy Club Podcast in London yesterday with comic performer Juliette Burton at King’s Cross station.

Last month, Juliette started a ‘new material’ comedy club in London – Juliette Burton’s Happy Hour. It is billed as “a night of positivity and happiness guaranteed to leave the audience uplifted”. She is the compere and, in the first show, she described what she saw when, as a teenager, she was sectioned under the Mental Health Act and had psychotic hallucinations.

Although she has mentioned these in this blog, she had never before described them on stage in front of a live audience.

Here is a brief extract from this week’s 39-minute Grouchy Club Podcast:

John
Whenever comedians expose themselves, as it were – psychologically – they feel very nervous about doing it. But I always tell them the person doing it feels empowered and the audience feels uplifted in some way – because someone else has survived something worse that they have experienced. At the first Happy Hour, you did a piece about your hallucinations, didn’t you…

Juliette
Yeah.

John
… and you had never done that before. I think you said you felt nervous about it, didn’t you?

Juliette
I felt terrified.

John
What is it like to, as it were, expose yourself? Because all comedians, by and large, are insecure and there’s nothing more insecure than exposing your actual deep psyche when people may reject you. People may laugh at you rather than with you. So what was it like to expose yourself or know you were going to expose yourself… and then do it?

Juliette
Yeah, I went naked in my last show and this time I’m actually going psychologically naked.

John
When you say you went naked in your last show, that was a magazine thing, wasn’t it?

Juliette
A magazine thing, yeah. I did a body confidence naked shoot for Cosmopolitan magazine.

It (the recent Happy Hour show) was weird. It was the first time ever that I had stood on stage and said: Right, this is what I hallucinated and I’ve spoken to friends about it and actually this whole experience (the hallucinating) was what eventually, I think, led me to comedy. Because I realised, if I wanted to talk about these hallucinations, the only way people would listen was if I could get them to laugh about it – because conversations with laughter last longer.

I was really nervous because they are very ‘out there’. I talk about seeing God and the Devil and these are big words that are terrifying anyway – I don’t know if I even believe in God and I’ve seen him – him/her, whatever.

You are right inasmuch as the audience seemed to really, really like it. I would say that actually it turns out that people want to talk about these things or want to listen about them now. It took me 13 years since the experience to want to stand on stage and talk about it, but it took Society about 300 years to want to listen.

Somebody came up to me after the show saying they, too, had been sectioned. Somebody else e-mailed me saying they, too, have had hallucinations – and that was in a relatively intimate audience. It was a packed-out room, but it’s not a huge room and, out of those people, already two of them had felt able to open up to me about their experiences and they had had similar ones.

I think people want to listen now; it’s just we need to be brave enough to actually stand out there and be more honest and truthful and I think the comedy I like most is the daring stuff – talking about things that people might not want to talk about in everyday conversation. I think it’s the most real and most truthful and the most raw and the most interesting because it’s honest and people respond to honesty.

********

On YouTube, Juliette has started to post a monthly video called BAHH – Backstage At Happy Hour.

In the first, she talked to performers Doug Segal and James Hamilton:

She also posts a weekly blog called TWIL – This Week I Love. The latest is HERE.

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