Tag Archives: Muppet

Mace & Burton – UK female comedy duo who sniff sandals & love rom coms

Mace & Burton in bed (Photo by Helena G Anderson)

Mace & Burton in bed in 2012 (Photo by Helena G Anderson)

Female comedy duo Lizzy Mace & Juliette Burton are at the Leicester Square Theatre in London  tomorrow night, performing their Edinburgh Fringe show Rom Com Con.

Then, next month, they perform it at the Brighton Fringe.

They first performed the show at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2011. They had no money that year and had to share a bed.

“I woke Lizzy up one night,” Juliette told me in London yesterday, “because I was ‘sleep flyering’…”

“And whispering…” added Lizzy

“I woke her and myself up,” explained Juliette, “because I was sleep-talking about flyering and I was really disappointed at waking up because, in my dream, my flyering for the show in the street was going really well and the people I was talking to said they would come and see the show. I love flyering. I absolutely adore it.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Because,” explained Juliette, “if you smile at someone and they say No and you don’t take it personally, that’s fine. They’ve got other stuff going on in their day. It’s not a personal attack on you. But, if they do engage with you in any way, then you can chat to them and brighten their day. Even if they don’t come to see the show, they might love your flyer and that experience of chatting to you.

“Thanks to the Cultural Enterprise Office up in Edinburgh, I have a couple of interns working for me on my new show and one of the potential interns I interviewed had a friend with her who remembered me flyering her on the Royal Mile and she kept the flyer for about three months after the Fringe because she remembered my flyering.”

Mace & Burton are performing as a duo in London and Brighton but, during the Edinburgh Fringe this year, Juliette Burton will be performing her first full-length solo show.

“Why won’t you be there at the Fringe?” I asked Lizzy Mace last night.

“I’ll be doing an intensive improv course at Second City in Chicago,” she told me. “We’ll still be working on things together after Edinburgh. At the moment, we’re writing a feature film version of our Rom Com Con show that will hopefully subvert all the conventions of the genre.”

“And,” I prompted, “you would describe the Rom Com Con stage show as…?”

“A true-life, documentary, stand-up performance,” Juliette replied for her. “It’s not really stand-up comedy.”

“We always call it comedy storytelling,” explained Lizzy, “because the comedy is not in gags. It’s in the truth of it and the situations we put ourselves in.”

Put ourselves in?” I echoed. “That sounds like doing something very consciously.”

Lizzy Mace (left) & Juliette Burton last night

Lizzy Mace (left) and Juliette Burton in London last night

“Yes,” said Lizzy. “Our shows are like Quest shows. With Rom Com Con the quest was trying to find true love by testing out the way people meet in movie romantic comedies. So we deliberately put ourselves in these ridiculous situations from the films.”

Juliette added: “We did lots of research.”

“Sounds like you just went on lots of dates and hoped it would make a show,” I said.

“Yes!” they both laughed.

“And hopefully, by doing the show,” said Juliette, “we would get more dates.”

“Which didn’t happen,” added Lizzy.

“A desperate search for love and affection,” I said. “Like all stand-up comedy.”

“Exactly,” laughed Lizzy. “We were just making that explicit.”

“Wearing our hearts on our sleeves,” said Juliette.

“So you’re basically both single and both desperate,” I suggested.

“Yes!” they both laughed.

“In fact,” said Juliette, “for Rom Com Con it was worse than that. Lizzy had been single for five years and I’d just broken up with my boyfriend of six years.”

“And,” added Lizzy, “just as Juliette’s boyfriend split up with her, three of her best friends asked her to be their bridesmaid. It was just like Uurghhh!…”

“So, for the movie version of this…?” I asked.

“We’re fictionalising things,” replied Lizzy. “We’re taking the emotional journeys we each went on but the events we’re putting the characters into are going to be more suited to film.

Mace & Burton’s Rom Com Con

Mace & Burton’s Rom Com Con stage show

“In our Rom Com Con stage show, each of us goes on our own journey and, as a result, we become closer friends towards the end of it. That’s what we’re trying to get across in the screenplay as well. The thing that’s most important at the end of it is the stronger friendship the two people have discovered through the whole journey.”

“Though not romantically,” added Juliette.

“It’s kind of a homage to rom coms,” explained Lizzy, “but also acknowledging that the traditional, standard kind of rom com might not be relevant any more. Maybe twenty years ago in a rom com, it was just accepted by the audience that the two leads would get together. You don’t have to prove why: the story was about how. But now you have to work a lot harder because there’s less of a belief in that idea of…”

“…two people being perfect for each other,” Juliette added.

“The writer has to work harder,” continued Lizzy, “to build-in those scenes that prove the couple are meant to be together and get the audience behind them. I guess we’re just looking at ideas of romance and how we can make a rom com that looks at romance but is more relevant.”

“Technically, it’s a buddy movie,” said Juliette.

“A female buddy movie,” I said.

“Yes,” said Lizzy.

“And your new solo show?” I asked Juliette.

“Is called When I Grow Up,” she told me. “I’m performing it at the Brighton Fringe and then the Edinburgh Fringe. It’s the first time I’ve done a whole hour of me standing stage alone, which is quite scary. It’s another true-life story like Rom Com Con. It’s a story about me trying to be all the things I wanted to be when I was a child… a ballerina, a baker, an artist, a princess, a pop star and a Muppet.”

“Which Muppet?” I asked.

“I didn’t want to be a specific Muppet. They were all misfits, but they belonged together and were stronger together. I just wanted to be part of that Muppet group and I wanted to marry Gonzo. He is my dream man – or thing or whatever he is. He’s awesome. He’s a risk-taker because he does exciting things like being shot out of a cannon. He ate a tyre to the tune of The Flight of the Bumblebee, showing he was cultured. He’s willing to try new things and he’s very romantic. I’m feeling quite passionate just talking about him. In all of the movies, he’s the one who sings the most poignant darkness-before-the-dawn songs. So he’s a poet. And he’s also very loyal. He was so in love with Miss Piggy, but she kept saying I’m in love with Kermit. And he just kept trying. I completely love him. And Jimmy Carr.”

“Jimmy Carr?” I asked.

“Yes,” confirmed Juliette. “If there were some way we could combine Gonzo and Jimmy Carr – someone with an appalling laugh and a very large nose – that would be excellent for me.”

“And When I Grow Up is going to be another true-life, documentary, stand-up performance?” I asked.

Juliette is torn between Gonzo and Jimmy Carr

Juliette is torn between Gonzo and Jimmy Carr

“Yes,” said Juliette. “I’ve done video interviews with the general public about what they wanted to grow up to be when they were a child… and what they do now. And what a job is and what a vocation is and whether what you do is who you are and what growing up is. And I’ve selected bits from those interviews to show universal stories. Some people have triumphed over redundancy by following their dreams. And there are people who have not followed their dreams but made active choices to do a job that allows them to have a life they love.

“But I don’t want it to be like some Edinburgh Fringe shows where they’re too much prepared-for-TV. I want it to be an interactive stage show. I will interact with what’s happening on the screen.

“I’ve interviewed Lizzy for When I Grow Up, so the show I take to the Gilded Balloon in Edinburgh in August will include Lizzy, she’ll just be on a video screen. It’s similar to Rom Com Con, where we did a two-hander presenting the story and have a screen with video interludes. But this time there will also be videos of the research I’ve done.”

“And you have something unexpected and dark in the show,” I said. “An unexpected twist.”

“Yes,” said Juliette, “but I’m not sure if we should talk about it. I think laughter is the only way to get through anything.”

“It makes things less scary if we can find a way to laugh at them,” Lizzy suggested.

“Comedy,” said Juliette, “is meant to tread the borders between what’s acceptable and what’s not and confronting the tragedies of life is a relief.”

“And,” I asked, “the highlight of your comedy career so far is…?”

“One of the highlights of my life,” said Juliette, “was when we sniffed the sandal that Graham Chapman wore in Life of Brian. We were at the BFI for the London Comedy Festival’s Kickstart Your Comedy Career course.”

“And they had an exhibition,” continued Lizzy, “for A Liar’s Autobiography, the film about Graham Chapman’s life. We were talking to one of the directors and there was this little glass case which had three things from the Monty Python films. There was a shield from The Holy Grail and there was this sandal from Life of Brian.”

“I think he saw how genuine my fandom was,” said Juliette.

“So he opened up the back of this glass display case,” continued Lizzy, “and he took out the sandal and we held it in our hands and I just said I really want to sniff it and so we both took this big sniff. It smelt surprisingly fresh.”

“It did,” agreed Juliette. “My favourite things in life so far have been holding that sandal, meeting Dawn French and meeting Michael Palin.”

“Was he amiable?” I asked.

“Of course he was,” replied Juliette. “He was Michael Palin. If I ever met Stephen Fry, I think I would go to pieces.”

“What about Jimmy Carr and Gonzo?” I asked.

“Oh my god!” said Juliette. “Gonzo!… Any Muppet, really… Any Muppet.”

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Frank Skinner & Mr Methane TV act banned by the BBC (and Phil Spector)

Mr Methane ended up looking like a Muppet

Someone on the BBC TV show ended up looking like a Muppet

The comedy ‘Rule of Three’ and Fate have combined to decree that Mr Methane appears in my blog for the third day running.

One of his better stories can never be told because, before the performance, he had to sign a non-disclosure agreement that he would never tell anyone the performance had taken place in that location to those people…

However, yesterday he reminded me about one publishable non-appearance he made.

Mr Methane is the Farter of Alternative Comedy, a phrase I will repeat until someone else copies it.

Comedian Frank Skinner used to have a chat show on BBC TV.

One week, Frank had actor Gene Wilder on his show and the subject of Blazing Saddles came up: a movie with a famous farting scene.

Frank mentioned Mr Methane’s performances to Gene and, in Mr Methane’s words, “slagged me off in a comic fashion, said I had played a few ‘bum notes’ and then did a bad impression.”

Mr Methane, a self-publicist experienced in blowing his own trumpet, took Frank to task about slagging him off and the result was he ended up on Frank’s TV show the next week, doing a duet of Da Doo Ron Ron, the 1963 Crystals song originally produced by Phil Spector.

Mr Methane appeared with Frank Skinner, but the BBC got windy

Frank appeared with Mr Methane, but the BBC got windy

“Frank was genuinely sorry about what he’d said the previous week and meant no offence,” Mr Methane tells me. “It was just a comedy slag off.”

According to Frank Skinner’s autobiography Phil Spector was not happy about the farted version of Da Doo Ron Ron. Neither was the BBC who got windy – not because of the song but because of the references to farting in the previous week’s show and the amount of complaints it had generated.

The BBC insisted that Frank edited out the Da Doo Ron Ron performance from his show before it was transmitted.

The act was unseen on the Unseen video

Act still unseen on the Unseen video

Later, the farted version of Da Doo Ron Ron was included on a video titled The Unseen Frank Skinner TV Show, but, Mr Methane tells me, “Phil Spector’s music publishers had an injunction put in place and all the videos had to be withdrawn just before Christmas. My section was edited out and a sticker put on sleeve saying This Video Does Not Contain Mr Methane… because most of sleeve artwork was basically press cuttings about our duet being axed from the original show: Beeb Blow Out Musical Bum, etc. All the re-editing delayed the video’s release and Frank missed the Christmas sales boom. No-one was happy.”

In his highly-recommended autobiography, Frank Skinner also talks about the occasion when Phil Spector, while receiving a lifetime music award, went into a rant live on Australian TV about the farted duet of Da Do Ron Ron, saying that Mr Methane and Frank Skinner had taken his work of art and desecrated it.

In 2009, Phil Spector was convicted of murder – shooting actress Lana Clarkson in 2003. He is serving a prison sentence of 19 years to life.

There is a YouTube video of the banned BBC footage which also features Ronnie Verrel (who did the drumming for Animal on The Muppet Show) on drums.

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Filed under Censorship, Comedy, Television

Nina Conti’s amazingly intelligent new film on Ken Campbell and on herself

(This blog was later published on the Chortle comedy industry website and by the Huffington Post)

I have always been a bit wary of ventriloquists. What’s with the talking-to-yourself bit? Ventriloquists are a bit like glove puppet performers. They are surely self-obsessed loonies.

But, then, maybe all performers are.

My wariness of glove puppet performers was never helped by stories of Basil Brush‘s drinking habits and Rod Hull and Emu’s antics off-stage… nor by the wonderful Muppet Show performers staying in character when they walked around ATV’s Elstree building. You would get into a lift to find two grown men with puppets on their arms, conversing to each other through the puppets and in the puppets’ voices.

Always a tad unsettling.

But I like eccentric and interesting people. And self-obsession, though it can sometimes be wearisome to sit through, can be fascinating.

Ventriloquist Nina Conti‘s documentary Her Master’s Voice – she wrote, produced and directed it – mentions Friedrich Schiller, who referred to the “watcher at the gates of the mind”, which can stifle creativity.

To be unconventional – to be creatively original – often means being criticised, which no-one much likes. So, in most people, Schiller’s ‘watcher’ tends to dismiss original creative ideas out of hand to avoid rejection.

The people who can ignore their ‘watcher’, though, can be genuinely original creatives.

I only encountered that extraordinarily influential connoisseur of eccentricity and ringmaster of alternative theatrical eventism Ken Campbell a few times. He was around the TV series Tiswas when I worked on it; he attended a movie scriptwriting talk I attended; and I once went with comedian Malcolm Hardee to see one of Ken’s fascinatingly rambling shows at the National Theatre in London. Malcolm admired Ken greatly, but found the show too rambling for his taste and he needed a cigarette, so we left during the interval and never came back. I would have stayed.

As its climax, the recent Fortean Times UnConvention screened Her Master’s Voice, Nina Conti’s wonderfully quirky new love-letter documentary to Ken Campbell.

Films are, by their nature, superficial.

In a novel, you can get inside someone’s mind.

In a film, you only see the externals of a person and you can only get some semblance of psychological depth and what someone thinks if they actually spell it out in words. One of the few films to get round this problem was Klute, in which the central character talked, at key points, to a psychiatrist.

Another way of pulling the same trick, of course, would be to have as the central character a ventriloquist who talks to their doll.

That is what Nina Conti very successfully does in this film.

Ken Campbell inspired Nina to become a vent by simply giving her a Teach Yourself Ventriloquism kit and, as he did with so many other performers, continued to inspire and advise her throughout his life.

Ken’s life was, it is said in the film, about “playing God with other people” – a phrase that might also be used to describe the mentality of a ventriloquist.

But, after ten years as a successful comedian/vent, Nina decided to give up ventriloquism and was summoning up the courage to tell Ken about this when she heard of his death via Facebook. She inherited his vent dolls and, with her own Monkey doll and six of Ken’s “bereaved puppets” she went to the Vent Haven International Ventriloquist Convention in Kentucky – bizarrely held in a fairly dreary model by a freeway.

The result is an absolutely amazingly insightful, highly intelligent and surprisingly emotional look at ventriloquists and at Nina herself. She is able to externalise her thoughts by talking to the vent dolls on screen… there is a genuinely shocking and insightful revelation in the movie about the ‘birth’ of her doll Monkey.

Ken Campbell believed that “creativity and insanity are almost the same thing” and the doll “gives us access to the insanity of the ventriloquator” while Nina says she thought she was bland as a person but the birth of Monkey gave her “an extra dimension”.

When psychologists and psychoanalysts meet vents, they must feel as if Christmas has come early and, interestingly, the book which Nina takes to read while on her trip to the Convention is Problems of the Self by Bernard Williams.

This is an astonishingly successful film with three possible endings, all of them on-screen. Nina manages to turn the ultimate ending into a happy one but, before that there is another possible ‘out’. When I left the screening, three people were still crying and highly emotionally upset over (I presume) that earlier ending.

Which well they might be.

This is an extraordinarily successful documentary.

Her Master’s Voice.

Watching someone talk to themselves has never been so interesting.

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Filed under Comedy, Psychology, Theatre, Ventriloquism

Kevin Bishop – consolidating a career combining comedy and ‘proper’ acting

Kevin Bishop seems to be consolidating his showbiz career by overlapping comedy and ‘proper’ acting rather well, without getting any distracting Russell Brand front page coverage.

Channel 4’s Star Stories got him attention in 2006 and The Kevin Bishop Show got him even more profile in 2008-2009. But he had already paid his dues. He started his showbiz career in that by-now almost classic training ground of BBC TV kids’ series Grange Hill and his first movie role had been as Jim Hawkins in Muppet Treasure Island back in 1996, when he was only 16 years old.

This week, he started filming a new comedy movie May I Kill U? about the recent London riots and, two nights ago, I was at the first recording of his new BBC Radio series Les Kelly’s Britain, produced by Bill Dare and written by Bill Dare & Julian Dutton

The show was interesting for several reasons.

One interesting thing was that, during the recording, there were two heckles from the audience, which I hope stay in after the edit. I have to admit I have not seen that many radio recordings, but I think I can say that heckles are not that common and Kevin dealt with them so smoothly that I actually wondered if they had been set-up… though I think they were genuine.

Unusually, Kevin did not use a stand microphone. He had one of those little headset mikes with a thin strip coming down the cheek of the type that Madonna and other singers have so they can strut freely around the stage.

This allowed him to wander the stage and to come down into the audience while the other four performers used traditional stand mikes.

The show was notable for excellent casting of the four supporting actors and for two spot-on Scots accents from them, one of which got laughs from me and from the cast themselves just for the accent itself – it was a rather oily Gordon Brown accent – you had to be there.

The show’s producer/co-writer Bill Dare has a long pedigree in comedy – including The Mary Whitehouse Experience, Dead Ringers, The Now Show and ITV’s Spitting Image 1990-1993. He is also, to me rather startlingly, the son of actor Peter Jones who, to my generation, was star of The Rag Trade and, to a later generation, was the voice of The Book in the original BBC Radio version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

There is a slight problem with Les Kelly’s Britain in that the basic comedy situation is that a show is being presented by a radio host who lacks self-awareness and Alan Partridge has explored and carved out that territory already.

So, although Les Kelly is a distinct character, it is a dodgy creative proposition.

The publicity says Les Kelly is like “the love child of Jeremy Kyle and Jeremy Clarkson” and “the natural heir to classic comic creations Alan Partridge, The Pub Landlord and Count Arthur Strong” which is fair enough, though the inclusion of Count Arthur Strong mystifies me.

The show sounds as if it might be slightly un-original but, in fact, that is misleading. The Les Kelly script, superbly delivered by all five performers when I saw it, has some genuinely wonderful surreal moments and occasional dark humour – it managed to fit in a joke about the wartime bombing of Dresden, though one of the re-takes at the end was, according to Bill Dare, “in case we need to cut the cancer joke”.

I hope they keep it in and that Les Kelly’s Britain prospers.

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Filed under Comedy, Radio, Television