Tag Archives: Milton Jones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

9. WILL I WIN THE PERRIER PRIZE?

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

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

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

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

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

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The god-like comedian Ken Dodd is more mugger than con man + he got a standing ovation in Bournemouth

Morecambe and Wise were not famous.

Yes, they were justifiably famous in the UK. But go to some village in western China and ask them who Morecambe and Wise were.

M&W are and always were total unknowns except in the British Isles.

Fame is relative and mostly regional.

To save my life, I could not tell you who the world water ski champion is. But presumably he or she is a Big Name if you follow water skiing.

The world is full of champions, each famous in their own little world.

I see quite a lot of club comedy and what is still called alternative comedy. Some of the acts are called comedy stars; some may even think they are stars. Audiences even flock to and fill large venues to see some of these people who have appeared in TV panel shows.

But they are not big stars even in the UK. They are minor and transient cults with a few disciples. Admittedly they have more disciples than Jesus did when he started but, just because you can get more than twelve people to listen to you in a room above a pub in Camden Town, don’t start thinking you are more famous than the Son of God.

Unless you are known and regarded in awe by a random 50-year-old housewife in a bus queue in Leamington Spa, you are not famous in UK terms. If you can fill a big venue at the Edinburgh Fringe with 23 year old fans for 27 nights, you are not famous. You are a very minor cult.

Last night, I saw Ken Dodd’s show Happiness at The Pavilion Theatre in Bournemouth. Ken Dodd is unquestionably famous in the UK and the venue was filled with a well-heeled middle-of-the-road, middle class Middle England audience of the type TV commissioners mystifyingly ignore. This audience was the great TV-viewing audience en masse on a rare trip out to see a live show.

Upcoming shows at The Pavilion include The Gazza and Greavsie Show, Roy Chubby Brown, Joe Pasquale, Jethro and Jim Davidson. Never, never, never underestimate the Daily Mail. Their readers are the mass audience. Admittedly Dylan Moran and Russell Kane also have upcoming shows at The Pavilion, but the phrases “sore thumbs” and “stand out” spring to mind.

London-based American comedian Lewis Schaffer has a routine in which he says his ex-manager told him he will never become famous unless, like a currently ‘famous’ alternative comedian, he can be a true professional and tell the same jokes in every show and repeat each show exactly.

Last night, the first half of Ken Dodd’s 5-hour show proved the danger of being too experienced and too professional a performer if you are on a long tour.

There was an audibility problem.

This was partly because the sound system at The Pavilion was occasionally indistinct – certainly where I was sitting, centre right in the audience – and partly because Ken Dodd, after 55 years in showbiz and on his seemingly endless UK tour, has been doing the same routines and telling the same stories for too long. He came on stage and spoke what, for the first part of the show seemed to be a script which he had got so used to he didn’t actually perform it: he just threw the words out. He galloped and gabbled through the words and syllables with the result perhaps a quarter of what he was saying was indecipherable.

And this was an audience with possible inbuilt hearing problems where I half expected the colostomy bags to break during the show to create a tsunami that could have washed the entire population of Bournemouth into the English Channel.

When an established act, instead of saying “Ladies and gentlemen” says “lay-ge-me” and all the other words and phrases are gabbled and elided indistinctly in much the same way, he is not performing an act, he is going through the motions on autopilot. He has heard the jokes 1,000 times; the audience has not (well, not most of them).

His saving grace was an astonishing gag rate of perhaps one potential laugh every ten seconds. And the material is gold. You couldn’t go wrong with that material. But Doddy was getting laughs because the jokes (when heard) were good, not because of any technical skill in the delivery.

There are very few successful gag tellers in modern alternative comedy – Jimmy Carr, Milton Jones and Tim Vine are exceptions not the rule. Most successful alternative comedians nowadays tell stories: not necessarily funny stories, but stories told funny.

Ken Dodd mostly told gags in the first half and funny stories in the second half (in which he found his feet more). But it struck me that his slightly more old-fashioned (or let’s say traditional) approach was very similar to inexperienced circuit comics today.

He told stories as if they were gags, with token links between each story, but with no over-all arc. If he told ten stories, the first and second might have a token link and the seventh and eighth might have a token link, but there was no over-all progression, no shape, no thread to the stories. So the over-all effect was like getting beaten round the head with gags by a mugger for five hours, not drawn into a personal fantasy world by a con man, which is what a stand-up comedian is.

It struck me Doddy’s unlinked gag structure was very like comics new to the current comedy circuit who have some material but can’t stitch it into a unitary act. They can do 10 or 15 or 20 minutes but are not yet capable of putting on a 60 minute Edinburgh Fringe show.

I suppose the transition from beating people into submission with barrages of gags rather than bringing them into your own personal world with smoothly-linked stories is a relatively recent development which Doddy has no need to embrace because he has so many gags and stories which he can throw at the audience from his years of experience.

Because he is so experienced and so good, I could not tell how much of the second half was scripted and how much he was just plucking and throwing in gags and stories from a mental storehouse.

One ad-lib which surely must have been planned and, indeed, ‘planted’ was a piece of banter with the audience in which Dodd asked a woman “How many children do you have?”

“Eight!” came the unexpected reply.

Dodd professed bewilderment at this and meandered for a couple of sentences about her husband, then asked:

“Have you sewn up the gap in his pyjamas yet?…. (pause)… You know what they say… A stitch in time saves…” (Immediate audience laughter – though strangely not as much as it deserved)

This cannot possibly have been an ad-lib. It had to have been planted in the audience because he feigned bewilderment at the initial reply of “Eight,” which he would not have done in the way that he did if it were not a lead-up to the punchline.

There were also glimpses of an unexpected (to me) Ken Dodd – a ventriloquist act with a Diddy Man doll that almost verged on being post-modernist and a sequence in which he was doing a series of very passable regional accents and which went into a whole non-Ken-Dodd realm.

Small numbers of the audience left during the single interval – including the friend I went with, who had been exhausted by the first two and a half hours – she went paddling in the sea by the pier and then found a strange Greek Orthodox priest intoning his way through a Paschal Celebration in a small chapel watching by an old woman with a bell and an old man in a shabby grey suit. He had started at 10.00pm – about halfway through Doddy’s show – and was still intoning, watched by his two fans, at 15 minutes past midnight after Doddy’s show had ended and we went to see if he was still going strong.

Whether Christianity or Ken Dodd’s shows will last longer is a moot point, but they probably have the same fans.

At the end of Ken Dodd’s Happiness show, people rose from their seats to leave while still clapping and, partially blocked from leaving by other people possibly with mobility problems, this turned into a standing ovation and a sudden flutter of flashes as people with mobile phones snatched quick photos of the god-like Doddy on stage.

The standing ovation in both the stalls and the balcony was warm and heartfelt and passionate but perhaps was more for being a national institution than for the show itself.

It was an event as much as a show.

Much like Jesus preaching to the converted, in retrospect, it will be loved, treasured and much talked about and the Master’s fame will spread, though perhaps neither further nor wider nor to western China.

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