Tag Archives: Milton Jones

My Comedy Taste. Part 3: Stand-ups vs jugglers. Skill is not the same as talent.

I posted Part 1 and Part 2 the last couple of days, so …here is Part 3 – the penultimate part – of a conversation in London’s Soho Theatre Bar back in the mists of 2017 in which comedy festival judge and linguistic advisor Louisette Stodel asked me about my taste in comedy. I continue to talk less than fluently through my own anal passage


LOUISETTE: So you admire skilled and talented people…

JOHN: Yes, but skill and talent are not the same thing. Malcolm Hardee – the highly-regarded British comedian, philosopher and nudist – always used to say he didn’t like mime or juggling, because they are skills not talents and “a tragic waste of time”.

If an average person practises for 12 hours a day for 5 years, they could probably become an excellent mime or an excellent juggler. But, if they practise endlessly trying to be a good comedian, they would not necessarily end up an even average comedian because there is some innate talent required to be a good comedian.

If you have two good jugglers or mimes, they can probably be as effective doing each other’s routines.

If you have two good comedians, even if they deliver the lines with exactly the same intonation and pauses, they very possibly cannot be as effective doing each other’s material.

LOUISETTE: Because there is something in the person…

Tommy: often copied; never bettered

JOHN: Yes. Though it depends on the jokes a little. People CAN do Tommy Cooper jokes and impressions quite successfully because the jokes are very short and simple and the timing is built-in to his very specific style of delivery. But I have seen people steal short, snappy, very funny Milton Jones jokes and they can’t deliver them as effectively as he does.

LOUISETTE: Some funny people are born writers and some are born performers.

JOHN: In days of yore, you didn’t write your own jokes; you bought them. Bob Monkhouse and Denis Goodwin used to write for Bob Hope. Well, that still happens, of course. (Famous comedian A) has a scriptwriter. And (Famous comedian B) buys loads of gags. I know the guy who writes for (Famous comedian A) and he was watching some TV panel show recently and one of his jokes from a few years before turned up. Which was fine; he had been paid for it.

LOUISETTE: Bob Monkhouse was brilliant. But would you have paid to go and see him? You said earlier that you would not pay to see Michael McIntyre because he was too professional for you.

JOHN: Interestingly, I WOULD have gone to see Bob Monkhouse and I have no idea why… I… I dunno. He was the Michael McIntyre of his time and he would have been the same every night.

LOUISETTE: He was a different comedian to McIntyre with a different relationship to the audience.

JOHN: I suppose the attraction of Monkhouse was that you could throw any subject at him and, off the top of his head, he would have six or ten cracking good jokes about it. No tricks. He was just like a joke encyclopaedia.

As a kid, I never rated Ted Ray – who was a generation before Monkhouse but had that same encyclopaedic joke ability. But maybe that’s because I was just a kid. Maybe if I saw him now I would appreciate his ability more. Though, to me, he never had Monkhouse’s charisma.

Bob: “He just really was hyper-sensitive”

Monkhouse had a terrible public reputation for being smarmy and insincere – largely from his stint presenting The Golden Shot – but I don’t think he was. He just really was hyper-sensitive. I only encountered him once. We had him on Tiswas and he famously liked slapstick: he had acres of slapstick films and idolised the great slapstick performers but, when he agreed to do Tiswas, the one thing he specified up-front was: “You can’t shove a custard pie in my face.” No-one had any idea why.

The pies were made of highly-whipped shaving foam, not custard, so they wiped off without damage or stickiness, but he wouldn’t have it. No problem. He said it up-front. No problem, but very strange.

LOUISETTE: You like the encyclopaedic part of Monkhouse and his ability to tell pre-prepared jokes well. But what about, at the other end of the spectrum, Johnny Vegas? He appeals to your love of more anarchic things?

JOHN: Malcolm Hardee phoned me up one Sunday afternoon and said: “You gotta come down to Up The Creek tonight to see this new comedian Johnny Vegas. You and me will love him but the audience might not.” No-one had ever heard of Johnny Vegas, then. 

I went and saw him that night and Malcolm and I loved him and the audience loved him. You could feel the adrenaline in the air. You had no idea what he was going to say or do next and I don’t think he did either. I remember him clambering through and over the audience in the middle of his act for no logical reason.

Hardee called Johnny Vegas “a genius”

He had no vastly detailed act. He just reacted to the audience’s reactions to what he did. Utterly brilliant. I said to Malcolm: “He’s never going to be a success, because he can’t do 2-minute jokes on TV and repeat them word-for-word and action-for-action in rehearsals, camera rehearsals, dress rehearsals and recordings.”

And I was wrong, of course. He HAS become very successful on TV. But not really as a comic. He made it as a personality – on panel shows where he could push the personality angle.

There was amazing adrenaline in the air that night at Up The Creek. You can feel adrenaline in a live show. But you can’t feel it through a TV screen.

A few years later, I saw Johnny Vegas perform an hour-long show at the Edinburgh Fringe and Malcolm had seen the show for maybe seven nights before that – every night. And Malcolm used the word “genius” about Johnny and I said: “You almost never ever use that word about anyone,” and he said, “Every time I’ve seen this show in the last seven days, it’s been a totally different show.”

Not just slightly different. A 100% totally different show.

Janey Godley is interesting in that respect because you know the story of her NOT being nominated for the Perrier Award at the Edinburgh Fringe?

LOUISETTE: No. Tell me.

… CONTINUED HERE

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My Comedy Taste. Part 2: Eccentrics, anarchy and performers’ mad minds

In 2017, oft-times comedy festival judge and linguistics expert Louisette Stodel asked me about my taste in comedy.

I posted Part 1 of this chat yesterday.

Here is Part 2…


LOUISETTE: So you don’t like actors trying to be stand-up comics…

JOHN: To an extent. I am also allergic to a lot of character comedy. I don’t like character acts in general, though I do like some. I think the closer the ‘character’ is to reality – to being like a real person – the less I like it. But, if it’s a cartoon character – Charlie Chuck is a perfect example –  I like it.

I adore Simon Munnery; he can be very surreal, but I didn’t like his early Alan Parker, Urban Warrior character – It was too close to reality for me.

LOUISETTE: You mean realistic.

JOHN: Yes. I have met people who really are pretty-much like that. When I was a researcher for TV shows, I got typed for finding eccentrics and bizarre acts. I would find genuinely different-thinking people who did odd things and usually lived in provincial suburbia, bored out of their skulls with the mundanity of their lives, unable to unleash their inner originality and unconventionality.

So, if I watch a performer pretending to be eccentric, I think: Why am I watching someone faking a ‘performance’ when I could be watching the real thing? You can see in their eyes that these performers are not the real thing. They are sane people trying to be, to varying extents, oddballs they are not.

Well, all good comedians are, of course, mad to an extent.

LOUISETTE: They are not all mad.

JOHN: They are all unconventional thinkers or they have some personality disorder. The good ones. And I think one of the reasons I like watching comedy is I like watching some of the bizarre characters which a lot of comedians genuinely are. I don’t like people pretending to be odd characters, but I like watching people who ARE… well, a bit odd. They are the good comics for me.

There is maybe a difference with pure gag-delivery acts like Jimmy Carr, Milton Jones and Tim Vine.

LOUISETTE: But, getting back to character acts…

JOHN: If someone does a character act, they are pretending to be someone else, which is what an actor does… rather than being themselves or some version of themselves, which is what a modern comedian does. So, if I can watch a comedian – let us not mention Lewis Schaffer – with bizarre character traits, I am happy. If I watch an actor pretending to be a bizarre character but not being themselves, I am not really that interested because I can go out and find the real nutter.

LOUISETTE: So what you are saying is you want the person to be the person and you want that person to be nuts. Is that because there is no danger in playing a character, no risk except that the audience might not like it? Whereas, if the person is being themselves and they get it wrong or they go off the rails, there is a risk?

JOHN: I suppose so – like watching a motor race because there is always the danger of a disastrous crash.

I may be like a Miss World contestant. 

LOUISETTE: I don’t think so.

JOHN: But you know how contestants in old-fashioned beauty contests were always asked their interests and they would say, “Oh! I’m interested in people”? 

Well, I AM interested in people and how their minds work.

Most of my blogs are not objective blogs. They have very little of me in them. That is not because I am hiding me. It is because I’m interested in finding out how the other person’s mind works and – because they are usually creative in some way – how their creative juices shape their performance pieces or their life – how their mind creates original end-results. Or – because I sometimes mention crime – how their slightly non-mainstream thoughts work. And, of course, if there are quirky anecdotes in it, that’s great. I am interested in the people and I am a sucker for quirky anecdotes.

LOUISETTE: You say you are interested in the creative process – the thing that makes that person tick both on and off stage – But how do you analyse that? How do you figure out from somebody’s performance – even if it’s very close to the real person – what that real person’s process is?

JOHN: I don’t know. Maybe that’s why I keep watching people perform. If I knew everything, there would be no point seeing any other act.

LOUISETTE: But what are you looking for?

JOHN: I dunno. I’m just interested in how everyone is different. Everyone is different; everyone is unique. There is no end to it, missus.

At a distance, people are similar but, up close, they are, like Charlie Chuck, unique

LOUISETTE: Infinitely different.

JOHN: Yes. It sounds wanky to say it out loud, but people are infinitely interesting, yes. At a distance, people are just a mass of similar heads but, in China, the Terracotta Warriors in Xian all have individual faces. 

LOUISETTE: How does that come into it?

JOHN: I have no idea. I’m making this up as I go along. But, if you read about identical twins, they are usually a bit the same but a lot different. I’m interested in individuality. It’s not nature OR nurture. It’s BOTH that creates infinite uniqueness.

LOUISETTE: I’m still interested in getting at this elementary, basic thing that you are looking for. You do not want things to be off-pat. You don’t want an act to be overly polished. But what about someone like Spencer Jones who has a very well-formed act.

JOHN: Yes, he is interesting because he IS an actor and he IS doing character comedy… so I should not like him, but I do… But, then, he is doing a cartoon character. In no way are you going to find that character working in Barclays Bank or walking along the high street. So I like him, I think, because he is a cartoon character. I think it is mostly tightly-scripted…

LOUISETTE: Yes, that’s why I am asking you…

JOHN: Maybe physical comedy and prop comedy is different. 

LOUISETTE: Is he prop comedy?

JOHN: I dunno. Martin Soan created The Naked Balloon Dance for The Greatest Show on Legs… The Balloon Dance has to be done exactly as it is choreographed.

The whole point is that you never see any naughty bits and therefore the balloons have to be… It looks chaotic, but, if it were actually done willy-nilly – if that’s an appropriate phrase – it would fall apart and would not be as funny.

LOUISETTE: You said it LOOKS chaotic. Do you enjoy that? What you are saying is that, if it looks chaotic but it actually isn’t…

JOHN: Maybe prop comedy and physical comedy are different to stand-up. I suppose with Spencer Jones, you are shocked by the use of the props; the… unexpectedness… This… this falls apart as an argument, doesn’t it? There must be something different…

I like pun comedy: Tim Vine, Milton Jones, Darren Walsh, Leo Kearse to an extent. They are very tightly pre-scripted or, at least, prepared. With puns, if they have a vast number of puns, they can move the order around but the flow, the pacing, the momentum has to be kept going so they need to be highly pre-prepared.

So that’s where my thing falls down. Verbally, pun shows and short gag-short gag-short gag shows like Milton Jones’ have to be very tightly choreographed and the prop comedy shows have to be very tightly choreographed physically.

I know from being involved in Tiswas – the ancient slapstick kids’ show – that, if you do something that appears to be anarchy, you have to organise it really, really well. You can’t perform anarchy in an anarchic way; you have to organise it in advance.

LOUISETTE: Like Phil EllisFunz & Gamez.

JOHN: Indeed. And I remember one Tiswas production meeting, after the show had been going for years, where the producer said: “We have to figure out some way to make things go wrong during the show.” Because they had been going for so many years, all likelihoods were covered-for in pre-production meetings. Everyone was very experienced, very professional and nothing really went wrong that threw everything off course. You could script-in things to go wrong, but nothing ever went genuinely disastrously wrong of its own accord.

LOUISETTE: Which you seem to like…

JOHN: I do like anarchy. I don’t especially want to see a Michael McIntyre show because it will be too smoothly professional. I do prefer shows that are up-and-down like a roller-coaster in an anarchic way. Though, if it involves immense detail like props or puns, then you can’t have real anarchy. The only way to have apparent anarchy with props and puns and tight gag-gag-gag routines is to prepare it all very carefully.

So I am… I am getting schizophrenic here, aren’t I…?

LOUISETTE: You are. But that’s good. I was discussing it with Frankie (Louisette’s son Frankie Brickman) and he asked me if it was unpredictability you like or feigned unpredictability.

JOHN: Maybe if they feign the unpredictability in a very professional way and I don’t spot the fact it’s feigned…

It’s not even unpredictability I like. It’s the cleverness. If it’s clever and a rollercoaster, I will forgive them the bits that don’t work for the bits that do work. 

… CONTINUED HERE

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Edinburgh Fringe: How NOT to flyer + act goes nude in Cosmo to plug show

My shirt (Photographed by Giacinto Palmieri)

My shirt becomes relevant later. Trust me.(Photographed by Giacinto Palmieri)

So, yesterday I was rushing (oh yes I was) round the edge of Bristo Square to get to a comedy show when this young and rather dodgy-looking bloke came at me. He looked coked-up and aggressive and I thought was going to ask me for money. In fact, he grabbed me strongly by the arm, did not tell me about any show but told me I had to take a flyer for the undescribed and un-named show he was pushing. Apparently I had to take the flyer, I had to touch fists with him and I had to tell him that 100% I was going to go to the show.

This is NOT a good way to flyer for a show in Edinburgh – intimidation only a hair’s breadth away from physical threat – especially when you do not say what the show is.

90 minutes later, I was back in Bristo Square, sitting looking at my iPhone messages, when a voice said: “Have you swapped shirts with Milton Jones?”

Giacinto’s Edinburgh Fringe poster

Giacinto Palmieri – horny in Edinburgh

It was mild-mannered Italian comic Giacinto Palmieri. He wears horns in his Fringe flyers. We wandered off in search of a cash machine.

On the way, a man flyering for a show handed me a strip of red paper.

“It is just a piece of paper,” he told me. “There is no information on it whatsoever.”

And, indeed, it had nothing written on it.

After a few steps, I turned back and asked: “What’s this all about? Why did you give me a blank piece of paper?”

“Because,” the flyerer said, “I’m flyering for Ben Target and what Ben Target wants, Ben Target gets.”

Ben Target’s publicity

Ben Target’s successfully minimalist publicity kit

He then gave me a tiny piece of orange card which, on one side, said HOORAY and, on the other blue side said in small writing:

2pm – 3pm
2nd – 24th
Banshee Labyrinth

Underneath, in a typeface so tiny it almost needed a magnifying glass, were the words:

a tiny invitation to a huge party
courtesy of Ben Target

Like the earlier, overly-aggressive flyerer, this told me nothing about the show, but was fascinating. Success.

The anonymous best Fringe flyerer so far...

The anonymous best Fringe flyerer so far…

“If I had taken the piece of red paper without coming back,” I asked, “what would you have done?”

“I would,” said the flyerer, “have let you take a blank piece of paper away and be happy for the rest of the day. I told you It’s just a piece of paper. At no point did I say it was a flyer: that would be false advertising. Please don’t drop it because, technically – as it has no information on it – that would be illegal littering.”

“What if I drop a flyer with information on it?” I asked.

“The authorities tend to let that slide,” said the flyerer, “but I think I’m in a grey area.”

Joz Norris

The ever jolly jester Joz Norris in a sober shirt

At this point, comedian Joz Norris passed by and said: “I have a very similar one to that.”

“What?” I said.

“Your shirt,” said Joz. “I have a blue, flowery, colourful thing. My sister sent it to me as a birthday present from Malaysia and, along with it, I got an alarm clock made out of a Fanta can. They’re very big on recycling in Malaysia. It’s very similar to your one. The shirt. I salute you.”

“There are a lot of sad people around Edinburgh at this time of year,” I told Giacinto.

“I have to go,” said Joz. “I am rushing.”

Because of all these jolly exchanges, I was a little late for my next show – which started at 1.30pm.

Valdemar Pustelnik

Valdemar Pustelnik – bigger horns than Giacinto

As I was rushing along Nicolson Street, a blonde girl held out a flyer which I took.

“Free comedy tonight!” she said.

The flyer was for the show I was seeing in three minutes time – 1.30pm in the afternoon – Valdemar Pustelnik’s My Demons Are Bigger Than Yours!

He was excellent. He is Danish. He wears horns on stage. His flyering was OK. But it was not night time, even in Denmark.

Promoting shows at the Edinburgh Fringe is a delicate balance between in-yer-face yelling and subtle originality.

On sale tomorrow morning around the UK is the latest issue of Cosmopolitan magazine. It features nude pictures of performer Juliette Burton.

A less-revealing photo from this month’s Cosmopolitan

More revealing publicity photo in this month’s Cosmopolitan

“I took ALL my clothes off (apart from a flower) to promote my show,” Juliette told me. “And I didn’t even have a say in which pics they used… I can confirm it is definitely not Photoshopped!”

Cosmo headlines their article:

BODY CONFIDENCE

My Amazing Body: How my struggles have made me more confident

An extract is available online. In the magazine, Juliette explains how she struggled with anorexia, bulimia, body dysmorphia and compulsive eating – and went from a size 4 to a size 20 in just six months.

That is relevant to her current Edinburgh Fringe Look At Me which looks at how people’s assumptions about other people are often based on externals.

At The Grouchy Club yesterday: a bad selfie of Coptick and me

Will Juliette Burton clash with Copstick at our Grouchy Club?

Juliette says she is coming to The Grouchy Club at the Fringe this afternoon. The show is co-hosted by me and The Scotsman’s critic Kate Copstick who, last year, got a lot of flak for what was seen as anti-feminist comments in last year’s chat show.

The opening sequence of Juliette’s Fringe show is on YouTube.

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Comic Steve Best takes 440 snapshots of the collapsing (?) UK comedy circuit

On sale from this week

It’s a snapshot of the people who made the UK comedy circuit

This week sees the launch of Comedy Snapshota book of 440 photographs of UK comedians – mostly backstage – by fellow comic Steve Best

He is launching it on Tuesday with an exhibition of photos at the Nancy Victor Gallery in London’s West End.

The exhibition then continues 2nd-7th April, with Steve in the gallery every day. “I’ll just be chatting to people who come in,” he tells me. I think cups of tea may also have been mentioned. Perhaps I misheard that bit, but it’s worth a try.

Steve Best at the Nancy Victor Gallery last week

Steve Best with his book at the Nancy Victor Gallery

“I’ve been taking the photographs for seven or eight years,” he told me in the gallery last week, while he was preparing the exhibition. “I took a load on 35mm, then digital came in, then camera phones. So I had a load of photos. I was talking to Bob Mills about a year ago and he said: Why don’t you do a book? That’s a great coffee table book. So, about 8-9 months ago, I started writing to the comedians I’d photographed and most of them – maybe 98% – said What a great idea. It’s a snapshot of the UK comedy circuit and the people who made the circuit.”

“Why 440 photos?” I asked.

“Well,” explained Steve, “someone said Why don’t you do 250 comedians? Hold some back, then publish another 250? But I thought This has been such a long project, just get it out there and, if something happens with it, I’ll either reprint for Christmas and add some more people in or do a second book.”

“Are you going to sell individual prints of the comedians?” I asked.

“No,” said Steve, “We were thinking of doing that in the gallery, but they’d be very expensive to print and I’d have to have another word with the comedians, because then you would be using them.”

Sixteen of the 440 comedians featured in Steve’s book

Sixteen of the 440 photographs featured in Steve’s book

“Was it difficult to get them all to agree to appear in the book?” I asked.

“No,” replied Steve instantly, “I was really amazed. People like Jo Brand, Harry Hill, Lee Mack were all up for it. Sarah Millican was great. I took my photo of her in 2008 and, in the meantime, she had become a TV star. It was only in June 2013 that I went back to all these people and asked each of them to give me a one-liner joke, to tell me three or four facts about themselves that had nothing to do with their comedy careers and to tell me when they started in comedy.”

“What were you before you were a comedian?” I asked.

“I’ve never been anything else.”

“You never wanted to be a photographer?” I asked.

“No. Actually, I did do some photography very early on for a company, but even then I was doing comedy as well.”

“So you’ve always been purely a comedian?” I asked.

“When I was young, I used to juggle before school. I would do an hour of juggling.”

“I think I’ve seen you juggle,” I said.

“I’ve never juggled on stage,” said Steve.

“Ah,” I said.

“I did study the guitar,” Steve said. “I did eight hours a day on the guitar for about three years. I do get obsessive about things and I do get obsessive about the quality – I will put the hours in. I’m a bit lazy otherwise. Doing this book was full-on. I’ve never had a full-time job. Doing stand-up, you do 20 minutes a night.”

Portrait of Milton Jones on the Comedy Snapshot website

A portrait of Milton Jones on the Comedy Snapshot website

Steve not only took all the photos and collected and collated all the written information, he also designed the book – no small task.

“Why is it not in alphabetical order?” I asked.

“Because,” explained Steve, “I’ve put pictures which look good on the page together. It’s a design thing. I think it’s a book you pick up and flick through and read it and put it down and take it on the train. That’s why I’ve done it this size: so you can just take it in your bag.”

“In the modern digital world,” I asked, “does it cost more to do a full-page photograph rather than a page full of text?”

“It’s expensive to print,” said Steve, “because I’m not doing a massive run. If they were colour photos, it would cost even more to produce.”

“£9.99,” I said, “is good for 440 photos of comedians.”

“And there must have been another forty comedians whose photos I have but who didn’t answer the questions I sent them.”

“Comedians as a breed,” I said, “are perhaps not always the most organised of people.”

“It took me ages to get an answer back from some people via Facebook or e-mail,” said Steve. “It was only about four weeks ago I said: I’ve got to sign this off and get it to the printers.

“Then I started Tweeting and Facebooking and getting news about the book out there so people know it is going to exist and one comedian apologised to me about a week ago. He said: I’m sorry I didn’t answer you. I’m really sorry. Is it too late? And I told him: You’re already in the book. You DID answer me. He had just forgotten!”

“I guess,” I said, “that people were more relaxed with you taking photos of them backstage. A professional photographer who had never met them before would not be able to get the same pictures you have, because you’re a fellow comedian and you’re on the same wavelength as them.”

A selfie taken by Steve Best for the book

A ‘selfie’ snapshot close-up taken by Steve Best for the book

“Yes,” said Steve. “When you’re backstage, you’re not doing a posed studio shot. They’re quite relaxed with me. They open up, though I’m not really asking for anything personal. As far as the words go, I didn’t want the text to be a CV, so I asked for facts not to do with comedy. It’s maybe a quirky book.”

“You told me,” I pointed out, “that maybe 98% of the people you approached were OK with the idea of the book. That still leaves 2%.”

“I think there was a problem at the beginning,” said Steve. “It wasn’t until I had some ‘names’ on board that they all thought: Oh, OK, this is not just a stupid project.

“Micky Flanagan was the first person who responded with a Yes. When I took his picture, he wasn’t famous. And Alistair McGowan. I took a picture of him in the Chuckle Club: he was famous then, but was trying out stuff. He said Yes.

“Then, when I then approached other people, I could say: Look, I’ve got Alistair McGowan and Mickey Flanagan and loads of circuit comedians. Then I got Harry Hill, Andy Parsons and others. In the end, I had loads of big names and everyone was fine.”

“But some said No?” I asked.

Steve Best is The King – of comedy snapshotters

Steve Best is The King – of comedy snapshotters

“One,” said Steve, “told me Why would I want to be associated with all those cunts? But he was perfectly amiable about it. Some people didn’t want to be in it very early on but I think once it was clear I was doing a snapshot of the circuit and the people who made the circuit what it is… then it was OK.

“And the circuit is not going to last as it is for much longer. Everybody’s talking about it, aren’t they? It’s all going different ways and it’s very much television and touring and big stuff – or small. There’s nothing much in-between now. It’s very hard to make a living as a circuit comedian. The book is a snapshot in time of the circuit and the people who made it.”

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Comedy without gags but with tragedy

Liam Lonergan: man of comedy

Liam Lonergan: man looking for a good laugh

Last October, I got an e-mail from Liam Lonergan saying:

“I’m currently compiling a portfolio of long-form articles re. stand-up, local theatre, comedy revue and comedy theory as part of my dissertation at the University of Portsmouth. I was wondering if I could borrow some of your time to have a little chat with you? I’m a regular reader of your blog and feel, with your background and obvious enthusiasm for the subject, you would be great to talk to!”

Enthusiasm? Me? About anything except chocolate? Is he mad?

Nonetheless, we had a chat and yesterday he sent me a 13,000 word transcript of what we had talked about. Liam is doing a BA (Hons) course in Creative and Media Writing. Here, with his permission, much shortened and tidied-up to mask my incoherence, is an extract:

________________________

Liam: Are you a fan of… I mean, there’s a current vogue for this… Are you a fan of awkward comedy?

John: No. I think the current vogue for awkwardness is a current vogue for people who aren’t very funny and they’re pretending that it’s post-modern and they’re being anti-comics when in fact it’s because they’re not being bleedin’ funny. The original joke when Alternative Comedy started was people went: “Oh, it’s alternative because you don’t laugh”. Unfair at the time, but a lot of modern supposedly post-modern comedy is pseudo-intellectual people who are not actually very funny.

Liam: Would you say you’re more inclined to the tailored jokes and the gagsmiths rather than the…

John: There aren’t really many stand-up comedians nowadays who tell gags. There’s Jimmy Carr and there’s Milton Jones and there’s Tim Vine. Almost any new comic who is doing gag, gag, gag material is copying one of those people. Most of the comedy today is actually storytelling comedy.

I enjoy those three comedians as gagmeisters but I prefer stories. A lot of comedians worry about getting laughs and I say they shouldn’t worry because ‘interesting’ is as good as ‘funny’ and the epitome of that is my good friend Janey Godley who in her entire life, I swear to god, has never told a funny story or told a gag. She doesn’t tell funny stories. She tells stories funny. And that works just as well.

Liam: Yeah, I follow her on Twitter. She’s Scottish as well, isn’t she?

Janey Godley’s bestselling autobiography

Janey Godley’s 2005 autobiography

John: Yeah, Scottish. I edited her autobiography which is the most horrendous autobiography you’ve ever read in your life. It’s like Edgar Allen Poe. A nightmare from beginning to end. You think the worst has come and then you turn over the page and there’s something even more horrifying. It’s a phenomenally horrific autobiography. And her breakthrough show at the Edinburgh Fringe was the comedy version of that, which was Good Godley.

People who never saw the show thought she must be making fun of serious subjects but she wasn’t. She was basically just telling some of the same stories that were in the book but because of the way she… It’s the Frank Carson line “It’s the way you tell ‘em”… and, with her, she tells the stories in such a way that you can laugh. In her case, it’s laughter as a release of tension. There’s a wonderful clip on YouTube. What she does is, it’s the beginning of her show and she tells the audience: “Don’t get freaked out but, when I was five, I was sexually abused by my uncle. Now I don’t want you to all rush the stage and give me a hug. It’s OK, cos I got him killed for my birthday later on.” And the audience laughs…

Liam: (Laughs)

John: That’s not funny.

Liam: No. No.

John: Which is the point. Because she then says, “No, I did,” and they laugh even more. She then says, “That’s not a joke,” and they laugh even more. Then she says, “Got his cock cut off,” and they all laugh even more. So she tells them with a completely straight face four separate times that something horrendous has happened and it’s not remotely funny but they laugh more and more and more and more.

Liam: Is it because, like, an expectation?

John: It’s very difficult. I haven’t quite got my head round it. What it is is Janey’s brilliant performance skills. It’s partly, possibly, that they don’t believe it. The killing bit. And I wouldn’t say whether it’s true or not. It’s not even a release of tension. I don’t know why they laugh. You FEEL why they laugh because you laugh along with them. But it’s simply the way she tells it. She doesn’t tell funny stories. She tells stories funny. She could read the telephone directory and make people laugh. She’s brilliant. Possibly the best teller of stories I have ever seen.

But she doesn’t tell funny stories. She tells stories funny.

My theory on sitcoms that last the test of time in Britain is that they aren’t comedies. They’re tragedies. So, in America, the best sitcoms are gag, gag, gag, gag written by fifteen people in a room. In Britain the sitcoms which have lasted with the exception of the David Croft ensemble comedies – Dad’s Army, Are You Being Served? all those ones – With the exception of those, all the best sitcoms which have lasted have been tragedies.

Liam: Things like Steptoe and Son, where they’re eternally bound to each other but they want to escape each other.

Steptoe and Son - a tragedy

Steptoe and Son, comedy on screen; tragedy if it were real life

John: Yes. I mean, Steptoe is a tragedy because you’ve got two people who are totally trapped in a situation they can’t get out of. Hancock is fascinating because he’s not a sympathetic character. You wouldn’t want to be trapped in a submarine or a lift with him.

And in One Foot In The Grave the central character is (if he were real) actually not a very nice man and it’s a terrible situation where they’re trapped and he’s frustrated by life and there’s one wonderful episode with the two of them just lying in bed in the dark, talking and nothing else happens. The payoff to that episode is it turns out they had a child earlier in their marriage and the child died. And that’s the climax of the comedy show.

There’s also a one hour Christmas special where the car breaks down and he goes off to find help. He’s on his own, goes into this old people’s home and it basically then turns into a Hammer horror film because of the way they’re mistreating the old people.

Liam: I can relate. I work in an old people’s home as well. The pathos and the sort of joke divide is so clear in places like that.

John: It’s a Hammer horror film. It’s not a comedy at all. Extraordinary. So I think most of the best sitcoms in Britain are tragedies and a lot of the best Edinburgh Fringe comedy shows are things like Janey Godley talking about her mother being murdered or Mike Gunn talking about his former heroin addiction.

So ‘serious’ comedy I like.

Awkward comedy, I think, is usually bullshit. But you can do…

Liam: Uncomfortable?

John: Yes, there’s always Lewis Schaffer, who I can watch and enjoy endlessly.

… CONTINUED HERE

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The best way to flyer for an Edinburgh Fringe show – use mice and terrorists

Sameena Zehra and husband Mike in Edinburgh yesterday

Yesterday, I went to see Sameena Zehra’s totally fascinating Edinburgh Fringe show Tea With Terrorists.

Afterwards, I got talking to her husband Mike, who flyers in the street for her show.

“I’ve been a musician all my life,” he told me. “A Blues singer. My name is Dr Blue.

“I love flyering. I love the challenge of flyering because it’s a 5 or 6 second performance. It’s the time it takes for someone to walk past you. I’ve got to get their attention in those few seconds. They need to know what the show is; where it is; and I need to get them to take one of the flyers.

“I never ever give a flyer to anybody. They always take them from me. Because, if you force a flyer on someone, they will throw it on the ground. I’ve got a patter which I use. It’s got various forms. It’s about getting someone’s attention but mostly their eye contact. As soon as I’ve got eye contact, they’re going to take a flyer.”

“So,” I asked, “why am I, a passing person, going to be interested in this show by a comedian I’ve possibly never heard of?”

“Well,” Mike explained, “the show itself has got to have a very catchy title. So Tea With Terrorists... Immediately people’s ears prick up. If I get eye contact, then I have another line – where it is, what time it’s on, the fact it’s free. But, if they’re waivering and they’re still smiling as they walk away, I’ll go:

Sameena has the full backing of her husband

No tourists or terrorists are harmed during the performance of Tea With Terrorists.

“And that’s when I’ve got them… Then you can extend that 5 or 6 second window by adding a bit more patter. Once they’ve taken the flyer, I can usually stop them and talk to them.”

“Do you say And it’s my wife?” I asked.

“I do sometimes,” he told me. “Once I’ve got them, there’s then a patter which I’ll use to talk about the show. I give them four key elements without giving anything away.”

“And they are?”

“Sameena did actually accidentally have tea with terrorists. She was nearly shot in the Green Zone in Kabul. She has got a grandmother who curses. And a friend who is frightened of sheep… Now you’re smiling,” he told me.

“If they’re not smiling by the end of those four,” he continued, “they’re probably not going to come to the show.”

“Flyering does work better,” I suggested, “if you’re a performer or a close blood relation.”

“Well, obviously,” agreed Mike, “I have a huge emotional commitment in this. I’ve watched the process develop. This show hasn’t just fallen out of the sky. It’s a writing process that’s been going on for 18 months. Sameena brought the show here to Edinburgh last year, when it was called Punching Mice.”

Punching mice?” I asked.

“Well,” he said, “that was an even better title to sell. I just stood on the street corner yelling PUNCHING MICE! and people came up to me and asked What the bloody hell are you talking about?”

“It was an earlier version of this show?” I asked.

“Yes. There used to be a sequence in the old show about punching mice as a form of stress relief.”

Sameena Zehra and her good luck panda without Jon Snow

Later, I asked Sameena about this.

“It’s pretty much the same story,” she said, “but it’s changed and it’s tighter. When I did Edinburgh last year, I had no idea what I was doing; I was pissing in the wind and it was a steep learning curve, but it was brilliant.”

“There are only really three comedians who tell gags in this country,” I suggested to Sameena, vastly over-generalising. “Jimmy Carr, Milton Jones and Tim Vine. Everyone else is telling stories not gags.”

“Well, I’m not a punchline comedian,” she said. “I’ve been doing this for about a year and a half. I’m not a comedian yet. I am a storyteller and I will be a comedian. The new show I’m writing is much more comic, but I’ll still be a storytelling comedian.

“Tea With Terrorists is very much about fear being redundant: you have to live with joy, you have to deal with stuff. The next show I’m writing is about how we end up becoming the people we are.

“The working title is If Jon Snow Were My Dad, because I love Jon Snow and if he had been my dad instead of the emotionally incontinent parents I had, would I have been a different person? How much of our lives is inborn, how much accidental? I’m not going to say any of that directly in my show, but it will come out through the stories.

“It’s going to have lots of stories from by my boarding school days in India. I went to a school run by a Socialist headmaster and started by Henry Lawrence, who was a British army officer. He started it in 1857 for the children of British Army officers. It was very very weird.”

Sounds ideal for Edinburgh.

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Has British comedy stagnated since Monty Python, Hardee and Tiswas?

Beware. This is my blog. These are my very highly personal opinions. You can object. Please do.

People have said Alternative Comedy is not dead, it has just ceased to be Alternative. It has become the Mainstream. But they seldom talk about the next new wave of British comedians who will replace the now mainstream Alternative Comedians.

I desperately want to spot any new wave for the annual Malcolm Hardee Awards, which I organise. Our avowed intent is to try to find “comic originality”.

We do find admirably quirky individuals to award the main annual Comic Originality prize to – last year, the one-off Robert White; this year, the one-off Johnny Sorrow.

And their one-offness is as it should be. You cannot have comic originality if 37 other people are doing something similar.

But where are the new style comedians performing a recognisable new type of comedy genre? There has not been anything overwhelmingly new since so-called Alternative Comedy arrived in the mid-1980s – over 25 years ago.

As far as I can see, there have been four very rough waves of post-War British comedy, most of them comprising overlapping double strands.

The first double wave of ‘new’ comics in the 1950s were reacting partly to stuffy mainstream 1930s Reithian radio comedy, partly to the necessary order of the 1940s wartime years and partly they were rebelling against the dying music hall circuit epitomised by John Osborne‘s fictional but iconic Archie Rice in The Entertainer (1957).

The Goon Show (1951-1960) on BBC Radio, at the height of its popularity in the mid 1950s, was the antithesis of the ‘old school’ of pre-War comedy. The Goons were a surreal comic equivalent to John Osborne’s own rebellious Look Back in Anger (1956) and the kitchen sink realism which surfaced in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Osborne was ultra-realistic; The Goons were ultra-surreal.

But Osborne’s plays and The Goons‘ radio comedy were both reactions to the rigidly ordered society in pre-War, wartime and immediately post-War Britain and The Goons‘ new anarchic style of comedy (although it owes some debt to the pre-War Crazy Gang and although the Wartime radio series ITMA was slightly surreal) really was like the new rock ‘n’ roll (which was not coincidentally happening simultaneously). It was startlingly new. They were consciously rebelling and revolting against a clear status quo which they saw as stuffy and restrictive.

Hot on the heels of The Goons came a different form of rebellion – the satirists of the 1960s – with Beyond the Fringe (1960) on stage and That Was The Week That Was (1962-1963) on TV. These two slightly overlapping Second Waves of new post-War British comedy were again reacting to a stuffy status quo.

The First Wave, the surrealist Goons wave, then reasserted that it was still rolling on when a Third Wave of influence – Monty Python’s Flying Circus – appeared on BBC TV 1969-1974 and – as satire declined in the 1970s – it was Monty Python‘s (and, ultimately, The Goons‘) comedic gene pool that held sway for a while – also epitomised, oddly, by the children’s TV show – Tiswas (1974-1982).

The Goons, Beyond The Fringe and That Was The Week That Was had been rebelling against something; Monty Python was surreal and Tiswas was anarchic just for the sheer sake of it. Monty Python and Tiswas were one-offs, but they have pale imitations trundling on even to today.

After Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister in 1979, a Fourth Wave of new comics arose in the early and mid-1980s – a generation influenced by the satire gene not by the Goons/Python gene. These mostly-university-educated young left wing things rebelled against Thatcherism with their often political-based humour which became known as Alternative Comedy.

But again, just as there had been a second overlapping wave of comedy in the previous generation, this mostly ‘serious’ comedy was paralleled by a different wave possibly more low-key but epitomised by the decidedly fringe appeal of the hugely influential Malcolm Hardee, whose release from prison and subsequent comedy career coincided with the start of and overlapped with the future stars of Alternative Comedy.

Malcolm’s strand of mostly non-political comedy was spread by the clubs he ran and the acts he managed, agented, booked and/or nurtured: acts including the young Paul Merton (performing as Paul Martin when Malcolm first managed him), Jenny Eclair and later Keith Allen, Harry Enfield, Harry Hill, Vic Reeves, Jerry Sadowitz, Jim Tavaré and Johnny Vegas.

While London’s Comedy Store nurtured future mainstream acts (some progressing there from Malcolm’s clubs), the more bizarre and original new acts continued to flock to Malcolm’s gigs and clubs including his near-legendary Sunday Night at the Tunnel Palladium gigs and later his lower-key but just as influential Up The Creek club.

These two strands of 1980s comedy – the alternative political and the Hardee-esque – successfully came together in a Channel 4 programme – not, as is often cited, Saturday Live (1985-1987), a mostly failed hotch-potch with different presenters every week, but its long-remembered successor, Geoff Posner‘s Friday Night Live (1988) which supposedly firebrand political polemic comic Ben Elton presented every week in what was supposed to be an ironic sparkly showbiz jacket.

Political alternative stand-ups mixed with strange variety and character acts, oddball comics and cross-over acts like Jo Brand, Jenny Eclair, Harry Enfield and many others nurtured by Malcolm Hardee.

This was both the highpoint and the start of the decline of Alternative Comedy because serious money was spent on the relatively low-rating Saturday Live and Friday Night Live on Channel 4, both ultimately shepherded by Alan Boyd’s resolutely mainstream but highly influential Entertainment Department at LWT.

Since then, where has the next giant New Wave of British comedy been? There are random outbreaks of originality, but mostly there has been a barren mediocrity of pale imitations of previous waves – and the desolate, mostly laugh-free zone that is BBC3.

At this point, allow me an even more personal view.

I thought I spotted a change in Edinburgh Fringe comedy shows around 2003 when Janey Godley was barred from consideration for the Perrier Award (despite a very lively verbal fight among the judging the panel) because it was decided that her seminal show Caught in the Act of Being Myself did not fall within the remit of the Awards because it was not a single ‘show’ repeated every night: she was basically ad-libbing a different hour of comedy every performance for 28 consecutive nights.

That same year, Mike Gunn performed his confessional heroin-addict show Mike Gunn: Uncut at the Fringe although, unlike Janey, he lightened and held back some of the more serious details of his life story.

It seemed to me that, certainly after 2004, when Janey performed her confessional show Good Godley!,  Fringe shows started an increasing tendency towards often confessional autobiographical storytelling. Good Godley! was one of the first hour-long comedy shows at the Fringe (though not the only one) to use material that was not in any way funny – in that case, child abuse, rape, murder and extreme emotional damage. Janey did not tell funny stories; she told stories funny. Viewed objectively, almost nothing she actually talked about was funny but audiences fell about laughing because it truly was “the way she told ’em”.

Since then, too, there seems to have been a tendency towards improvisation, probably spurred by the financial success of Ross Noble and Eddie Izzard. The traditional 1980s Alternative Comics still mostly stay to a script. The 21st Century comics influenced by Janey Godley, Eddie Izzard and Ross Noble often do not (to varying degrees).

So it could be argued there has been a tendency in this decade away from gag-telling (apart from the brilliant Jimmy Carr, Milton Jones and Tim Vine) towards storytelling… and a tendency towards improvisational gigs (bastardised by the almost entirely scripted and prepared ad-libs on TV panel shows).

But long-form storytelling does not fit comfortably into TV formats which tend to require short-form, gag-based, almost sound-bite material – you cannot tell long involved stories on panel shows and on Michael McIntyre’s Comedy Roadshow type programmes. So a tendency in live gigs and certainly at the Edinburgh Fringe – a tendency away from gag-based comedy to storytelling comedy – has been unable to transfer to television and has therefore not fully developed.

Occasionally, a Fifth Wave of British comedy is sighted on the horizon but, so far, all sightings have turned out to be tantalising mirages.

One possibility are the Kent Comics who all studied Stand Up Comedy as an academic subject in the University of Kent at Canterbury. They include Pappy’s aka Pappy’s Fun Club, Tiernan Douieb, Jimmy McGhie, Laura Lexx and The Noise Next Door. But they share an origin, not a style.

Whither British comedy?

Who knows?

Not me.

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