Tag Archives: Neil Mullarkey

The art and psychology of heckling comics and throwing objects at them

Malcolm Hardee – known for running notorious comedy clubs

Exactly 14 years ago tonight, comedian Malcolm Hardee drowned in Greenland Dock in the Rotherhithe peninsula, London.

He maintained his principles, even in death.

When his body was raised from the dock several days later, he was still clutching a bottle of beer.

Malcolm was famed for spotting and helping talented comedians at the start of their careers. He was also known for running and hosting the Tunnel Palladium club night – a Sunday evening show with good professional acts but also an ‘open spot’ section so dangerous for new acts to perform in that aspiring comics would sometimes travel hundreds of miles to see if they could survive an audience known and feared for its razor-sharp heckling.

After the club was raided and closed by the police for drugs offences (NOT on one of Malcolm’s nights – he only did Sundays) he opened Up The Creek comedy club in Greenwich where, initially, the hecklers continued their trade.

Here, I chat to one of the Tunnel’s most effective hecklers – Gordon ‘Bres’ Breslin.


Gordon Breslin – a taste for heckling

JOHN: You got a taste for heckling at the Tunnel club…

BRES: Well, before that, me and a friend used to go to Speaker’s Corner on a Sunday afternoon and absorb some of the heckling of speakers that was going on. I remember heckling the Reverend Donald Soper on occasion, when he was preaching there. That’s where we cut out teeth.

JOHN: Did Lord Soper take it well?

BRES: He did indeed. He was a very nice gentleman. After that, though, we discovered the Tunnel club.

JOHN: You were regulars.

BRES: Yes. And the heckling was quite good fun. To start with, it was limited to the open mic spots.

JOHN: But all heckling is surely cruel and nasty.

BRES: Sometimes it is cruel and nasty but sometimes an act just needs to go if they’re not very good.

JOHN: But these poor, sensitive people have spent months refining their act…

BRES: Well, being heckled is how they know it needs more refining. If an act is really bad, something should be done apart from walking out. I think audiences have become too tolerant of bad acts these days. Back in the Tunnel days, it could be quite rude – “Get off! You’re shit!” This was 1984 to 1989.

But word got out about the heckling there and it got progressively more ermmm… ‘aggressive’ I guess is the word.

JOHN: Well, I guess throwing beer glasses at the acts is aggressive.

BRES: Yes, but people like Simon Munnery were cutting their teeth there and he didn’t mind a bit of heckling. There used to be a very good heckler at The Tunnel called The Pirate…

JOHN: I think Malcolm told me The Pirate was a stockbroker who retired early to Spain with lots of money.

Mike Myers (left) and Neil Mullarkey perform at Malcolm Hardee’s Tunnel club in 1986 (Photograph by Bill Alford)

BRES: His great one was… A comic would make his best joke of the night and The Pirate’s voice would be heard saying “Oh larf… Oh larf… Oh larf,” which would just floor the comedian. Some of the heckling was very very funny.

JOHN: And the best heckles are…?

BRES: I think the art of the heckle is… A heckler wants to make a funny gag and make the audience laugh and perhaps even get the biggest laugh of the night and – not necessarily make the comic feel small, but – make the comic appreciate the heckler’s one one-liner as well.

JOHN: Surely it is just solely to make the comic feel small.

BRES: Well, in a way. But the comic has the right of reply, so he can make the heckler feel even smaller. A lot of people don’t want to sit in the front rows because they don’t want to be picked-on by the comic. Let’s get it into perspective. For me comedians, if they are any good, will always pick on the front row. So they have more than ample opportunity to get their retaliation in first.

JOHN: So heckling is the audience picking on the comedian, not the comedian picking on the audience.

BRES: Exactly. That’s the one. As long as it’s fair and just. At The Tunnel, some of the comedians would come on looking nervous and, before they’d even said a word, the first thing shouted out was: “Maaallcolm!!!” Then someone else would take up the cry: “Maaallcolm!!!” Then the whole audience would end up shouting “Maaallcolm!!!” and, before the comedian had even said a word, it was not unknown for the act to walk off without even doing a joke.

JOHN: And the audience would sometimes call out for a taxi…

BRES: Yes. “Cab for (the comedian’s name)!” Those were the regular heckles. But then it got a bit overtaken by… Well, a bit violent, I should say – Throwing things and it… it got… erm… too bad. There was an incident where Clarence & Joy Pickles (Adam Wide & Babs Sutton)… I think it was a beer crate or something like that was thrown at them – something quite chunky…

JOHN: Malcolm told me he wasn’t the compere that night. I think he was maybe at the Edinburgh Fringe.

Malcolm made a mistake in giving a copy of this letter to each member of the Tunnel club audience

BRES: I think she sustained a cut – Joy Pickles. So, the following week, there was a letter to the audience from Tunnel Arts – which was Malcolm – asking all members of the audience to “refrain from throwing anything at the stage… The Tunnel Club is noted for its witty heckling and appreciation of a good act. Let’s not spoil it by behaving as animals. It is coming to a point where a lot of good acts are thinking twice about performing here (quite rightly so) and this means that your enjoyment will be impaired.”

A copy of this letter was put on every seat in the Tunnel club and, of course, when Malcolm came on stage, he got bombarded by people throwing screwed-up letters and paper aeroplanes at him. So the letter became a surreal heckle.

JOHN: My memory is that, sometimes, they didn’t just throw beer glasses at the acts; they sometimes threw half-full glasses so there was beer all over the place too.

BRES: Well, it was probably quite watered-down beer. 

JOHN: The heckling-off of acts was quite effective.

BRES: Yes. Sometimes self-defeating. Sometimes you might have seven or eight acts and the show would be over in half an hour because everyone had been heckled off – sometimes even the good ones.

Jools Holland (left) with Malcolm Hardee at the Tunnel club in 1985 (Photo by Bill Alford)

JOHN: Malcolm told me that, after the trouble with Clarence & Joy Pickles, he had to make it a members-only club and he then discovered lots of the audience were not local. They were coming through the Blackwall Tunnel from north of the Thames and a lot were very highly-paid, highly-educated City workers, which was why the heckling was of such a high standard. I think someone was once heckled off in Latin and looked a bit surprised.

BRES: Yeah.

JOHN: What was your job at that point?

BRES: (LAUGHS) I was a Lloyds underwriter, working in the City.

JOHN: So basically it was up-market scum causing the problems.

BRES: Exactly. (LAUGHS) But I am from humble beginnings. I guess the Tunnel club had a timely demise and we were then a bit bereft of anywhere to go. We tried out Jongleurs club in Clapham, but the comedy was never great there and we weren’t allowed to heckle. We were physically told-off by bouncers. Luckily, Malcolm then set-up Up The Creek in Greenwich, which didn’t have the same notoriety as the Tunnel.

JOHN: I think the brothers who co-owned it with Malcolm told him after a few weeks that he couldn’t allow heckling and throwing things. Though I do remember some open spot act who got up on stage and started reading poetry. He was a bald man and you could see the blood trickling down his forehead after something was thrown and hit him.

BRES: I was there when Eddie Shit was performing. He came on dressed as Freddie Mercury and was singing songs by Queen with all the lyrics changed to refer to shit. I was sitting down the front and we were getting things passed to us from the back – including glass ashtrays – to throw at him. Which, obviously, we never did.

There was one occasion when an act which really was shit had been using a real frozen chicken and they ended up throwing this frozen chicken at the audience. The audience kept it then, slowly but surely, it made its way down the front. It came to me and I remember getting up on stage and offering it to Malcolm and I think I started up the chant “Shag the chicken! Shag the chicken!” which the whole audience took up.

So Malcolm got his knob out and duly obliged. 

That was quite amusing.

JOHN: Did you make friends with the other hecklers?

BRES: Yes. And some of the acts as well. It wasn’t all animosity. Simon Munnery, Martin Soan, Boothby Graffoe, Rich Hall. We would leave the good acts alone and they would leave us alone.

JOHN: Mostly, I thought the hecklers at Malcolm’s clubs were firm but fair.

BRES: I would like to think that.

JOHN: Part of the training process for new comedians. You don’t get much heckling nowadays.

BRES: The demise of heckling is down to the extra tolerance we have nowadays, even for bad acts. There are hidden boundaries these days. There’s too much respect for comics these days. Performers don’t know how to give a riposte and, as a heckler, you don’t want to show them up. It would just stump them.

JOHN: Isn’t that the point?

BRES: Not always. The next generation should learn what “Maaallcolm!!!” means.

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Embarrassing name-calling & the 1985 hopes of Neil Mullarkey & Mike Myers

John Williams in 2013, when his show was at the Edinburgh Fringe

Last year, John Williams’ show was at the Edinburgh Fringe

This morning I was having an e-mail conversation with superb performer John Williams.

I missed his show My Son’s Not Rainman at the Edinburgh Fringe last year, but saw it recently at London’s Canal Cafe Theatre.

It is about life with his autistic son.

John did not put a creative step wrong in it anywhere. Writing, delivery, intonation, pacing, laughter, tears. All absolutely 100% spot-on for 100% of the time.

I mentioned to him this morning that he is difficult to find online because his name is relatively common. He told me:

“I did stand-up comedy years ago and had a stage name then – John Lauren – it became a bit of a thing to hide behind. I didn’t gig much, I got to the final of Laughing Horse’s New Act of The Year in 2002 after eight gigs, was completely out of my depth, got a bloody awful review and ran away for ten years… I always said if I was coming back I’d use my proper name so there was no safety net – it certainly makes me difficult to find, though. It has been handy over the years for dealing with credit reference agencies, less so for publicity.”

I told him:

My full name is John Thomas Fleming (I don’t think John Thomas meant anything to my parents) and, when I first applied for my National Insurance number it took about six months to get because there were six – SIX – John Thomas Flemings all born on exactly the same day and they thought I was the one in Newcastle trying to pull some scam. Who would have thought? SIX! It tends to keep your ego in check at a sensibly early stage about your own uniqueness.”

John Williams’ reaction was:

“Christ Almighty, I’m another John Thomas – I thought I was the only one whose parents managed that stunt. I kept my middle name top secret after years of stick at school then realised on my wedding day that I would have to come clean as the vicar would declare in front on the congregation: Do you take John Thomas… So, I suffered the indignity of finally confessing my true name only for the vicar to just refer to me as John.”

In this blog a couple of days ago, I posted two chats with comedian/executive business coach Neil Mullarkey.

In the 1980s, he was in a double act with Mike Myers who went on, in 1997, to make the first of his three Austin Powers movies (in which Neil Mullarkey appeared).

Back in 1985, Mullarkey & Myers were founder members of The Comedy Store Players and both were at the start of their careers.

Mike Myers (left) and Neil Mullarkey perform at Malcolm Hardee’s Tunnel club in 1986 (Photo by Bill Alford)

Mike Myers (left) and Neil Mullarkey perform at Malcolm Hardee’s Tunnel club back in 1986 (Photo by Bill Alford)

Neil Mullarkey was 24 and Mike Myers was 22.

They wrote a list which I had been going to include in my Neil Mullarkey blogs this week, but which I regretfully cut for reasons of length. On second thoughts, though, it is maybe worth posting as a comment on the nature of time and fame and humility.

Most people born after a certain date will not know who most of the people mentioned in this list are… or were. Fame is fleeting. Names and people and their lives are quickly forgotten.

Tempus fugit.

Vanitas vanitatum omnia vanitas.

This is Mullarkey & Myers’ 1985 list of…

AMBITIONS FOR ’86 AND BEYOND

  • to meet Reg Varney (On The Buses)
  • to meet Doug McClure (Trampas in The Virginian)
  • for Reg Varney to meet Doug McClure
  • to be asked to do a prestigious benefit gig
  • to perfect their Mexican accents
  • to bring happiness to people who are sad
  • to meet Bob Todd (the tall bald bloke on Benny Hill)
  • to visit East Finchley
  • to write a sketch set in ancient Greece, so they can wear sheets as if they were togas and do their hair in a funny way and wear laurel leaves round their heads and also sandals
  • to travel
  • oh, and be happy
  • to make it big
  • to punish Hawaii for the brutal slaughter of Captain Cook
  • to meet Roger Ramjet
  • to be in one of the Brylcream adverts
  • to release a hit single, get on Top of the Pops and ask the people on it why they dance in such a funny way, also to meet Dave Lee Travis
  • to make it really big

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How did a stand-up comedian and improviser become a business guru?

Neil Mullarkey in the Comedy Store dressing room this week

Neil Mullarkey in the Comedy Store dressing room this week

In yesterday’s blog, I talked to Neil Mullarkey about his memories of 1980s alternative comedy.

I talked to him in the dressing room of London’s Comedy Store before he improvised two hours of comedy with The Comedy Store Players, the group of which he was a founding member in 1985.

Now, he mostly makes his living from running improvisation workshops for businessman and organisations – Improv Your Biz.

As well as this serious business guru career, Neil also occasionally pops up as spoof life coach guru L.Vaughan Spencer.

Neil’s chum PR guru Mark Borkowski advised him to distinguish between the two. So, as L.Vaughan Spencer, Neil sports a small beard and ponytail. L.Vaughan Spencer staged a show Don’t Be Needy, Be Succeedy in 2002 and, in 2008, published a book: Don’t Be Needy, Be Succeedy – The A to Zee of Motivitality.

Neil’s 2008 spoof book

L.Vaughan Spencer’s 2008 spoof book

What links Neil’s three worlds of comedy, spoof life coaching and real business training is improvisation

Neil explained: “One of my chums at the Edinburgh Fringe back in 1983 told me: I saw this brilliant show last night. – Omlette Broadcasting (Jim Sweeney, Steve Steen, Justin Case, Peter Wear). They were improvising. And I couldn’t believe it was possible. I thought: They must take a suggestion from the audience and then steer it towards the thing they’d already planned. In a sketch format, I didn’t realise you could do Funny without planning.”

“And you met Mike Myers,” I prompted, “who went on to do the Austin Powers films.”

“Yes,” said Neil. “I met him when he was selling tickets for the Cambridge Footlights show I was in at the Gate Theatre in Notting Hill, London, and he made me laugh.

“He told me he had been at Second City in Canada and that was where my heroes were from. My heroes were John Belushi and Dan Ackroyd. The Blues Brothers was the thing I wanted to do. American comedy was what I loved. American sitcom. And Mike told me about improv where it’s about ‘accepting offers’.

“When The Comedy Store Players perform, we are each listening intently to what the others are saying. Someone will throw me a line and I will take it on. Instead of thinking No, no, no, that’s not what I am saying – which is called ‘a block’ – I will take the other person’s line – ‘accepting the offer’. The more Mike told me about the whole ethos of improv, the more I said: This is intriguing! This is fantastic!”

Mike Myers (left) and Neil Mullarkey perform at Malcolm Hardee’s Tunnel club in 1986 (Photo by Bill Alford)

Mike Myers (left) and Neil Mullarkey perform at Malcolm Hardee’s Tunnel club in 1986 (Photograph by Bill Alford)

“And,” I said to Neil, “you teamed-up and performed in Britain as Mullarkey & Myers in the early years of alternative comedy.”

“Yes,” said Neil, “we did quite physical visual parody sketches”

“Did you think of going over to America when Mike moved back?”

“I visited him a few times. We did our show in Toronto and the audiences got it. When I visited America, I did quite like being the foreigner. You become more English when you’re in America, because people say: Do that accent! I’m pretty English anyway, I suppose, even though I’ve got an Irish name and I was brought up in France for my early life. I went to LA a few times and thought This is great to visit, but I don’t want to live here. I like England and I like London.

“Mike wanted me to go and write on Saturday Night Live, but I fell in love with someone in Britain.”

“You fell in love and your partner wanted to stay here?”

“Yes. I did help Mike with the script on a film called So I Married An Axe Murderer, which was great fun… but I’m doing the thing I want to do now.”

“At what point did you get into your corporate teaching guru hat?” I asked. “And why? Was there one trigger for that?”

“In the late-1990s,” said Neil, “I thought: Do I want to be doing this when I’m 50?

“Going on stage in front of a drunken comedy audience?”

“Yes, a bit of that. But also, when you are an older comedian, you’re not as interesting to people in TV and radio. They want Who is the new person on the block? They want Who is the same age as me? – They don’t want to discover somebody that’s already been discovered.

Two complementary improv worlds shown on Neil's website

Two complementary improv worlds shown on Neil’s website

“I also found that the vehicle for most comedy on TV and radio was the panel show. It tends to be quite combative and un-collaborative and I’m not very good at that. But also, philosophically and psychologically, I was looking at other things. I was interested in how organisations and businesses function. My degree is in psychology, sociology and economics, so I was always interested in that.

“I suppose the big thing was I met a man called Frank Farrelly who created Provocative Therapy… Provocative Therapy uses humour to help people get better.”

“What does Provocative Therapy provoke?” I asked.

“It sounds confrontational,” said Neil, “but what you do is satirize people’s self-limiting beliefs in order to help them achieve mental health. You assume the answer – the solution – is within themselves.

If you say I want to give up smoking, I’ll say Why? Smoking is fantastic! It’s really cool – You should be smoking more! And then they go: Wait a minute. This isn’t what I expected and they begin to think Why DO I want to give up smoking?

“Frank Farrelly’s idea is that you hold up a weird hall of mirrors to people to make them look at themselves and think Hang on! What IS it I want?

Neil Mullarkey - inspirational businessman

Neil Mullarkey – inspirational and provocative businessman

“In improv, you basically treat what the other person has to say as an ‘offer’. You have choices of how to react to that offer. That works in the improv scenario. If you transfer that to business or organisational life and treat what your fellow employees or team say as an offer, then you have to figure out how you can accept their offer positively to say Yes AND rather than Yes BUT… It is an intent listening… Intentive listening.”

“Intentive?” I asked.

“It’s a word I made up,” said Neil. “It means you are listening with intent. You are so focussed on the other person that you pick up their threads.

“Provocative therapy is about accepting ‘the offer’ – like in improv – and almost taking it to absurd heights… How many cigarettes do you smoke in a day? 20 a day? No. You should be smoking 200. Can you make that a promise? 200? 

“Sometimes the client gets angry, sometimes they’re laughing. But what is going on is they are processing thoughts. They may be visualising themselves and thinking It’s absurd smoking 20 if I want to give up. Why am I not just giving up?”

“But surely,” I said, “if you use this technique with businessmen, they’ll think you are being sarcastic?”

“Well I do it. I am just teasing them. Frank Farrelly said you’re just teasing people back to mental health.

“I went to see him at his home in Wisconsin. then he came over to the Netherlands to do a workshop and I discovered all these people. What do you do? – I’m an executive coach – I had never heard of that. Loads of people from Belgium. I gradually found this other world of coaching business executives – as well as arts-based training in the business world.”

“Arts-based training?” I asked.

“Basically using theatre, art, music to help people do their job better. Whether it’s to work better as a team, to be more creative, to be a better leader, whatever.”

“It sounds like executives paintballing to bond with each other,” I said, “but indoors.”

“That’s what it is,” said Neil. “But my contention is Why go build a raft and do paintballing? – That has nothing to do with your job. Do something that is relevant to your job – and what is the thing you most do in a job? You talk to other people. So here is a ready-made philosophy – improvisation – which actually started in the 1920s in Chicago as part of the New Deal. Social workers helping children who were diffident in class, didn’t speak English as their first language… Exercises to enhance their confidence..

Comic Neil Mullarkey knows how to flirt and schmooze

Comic Neil Mullarkey knows how to flirt, schmooze, network

“That was done by a woman called Viola Spolin and, 30 years later, her son Paul Sills created what became The Second City theatre company that Mike Myers and I talked about.”

“So,” I said, “Provocative Therapy helps business people to schmooze.”

“You can use improv to flirt, to schmooze, to network,” said Neil. “Any word you want to use because – really – it is just listening with intent. When people are laughing, they’ll learn more. You can blindside them with funny.”

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Neil Mullarkey of The Comedy Store Players on 1980s alternative comedy

The Comedy Store in London last night

The Comedy Store, London, yesterday evening

I went to see The Comedy Store Players’ improvisation show last night. They perform twice weekly at The Comedy Store in London. Before the show, I chatted to Neil Mullarkey, one of the founding members, in the dressing room.

“In the old Comedy Store in Leicester Square,” said Neil, “there was no toilet in the dressing room. There was a sink you could pee in. Sometimes a woman would say: I’m going to have a pee; do you mind leaving the room? And we did. Otherwise they’d have had to go all round and queue up with the punters. But now we have a toilet.”

“Most comedians,” I said, “are barking mad, but you’re now a businessman, so you can’t be that mad.”

Neil runs improvisation workshops under the name Improv Your Biz – “using improvisational theatre to enhance people’s skills in communication, leadership and innovation.”

He told me last night: “I apply the skills and ethos of improv to business people, but I don’t consider myself a business person. I still do the Comedy Store Players, but that’s about the only showbiz I do these days. I really enjoy teaching people and looking at how organisations run. I have made my choices and I feel very pleased by them.

“The idea of getting in a car or a train and going to some distant place and doing a gig to some people who are drunk and not that interested and then coming home again does not appeal to me greatly. In how many professions do you want the customer to be inebriated? I can only think of two – gambling and prostitution.

“It drives me mad sometimes when I do a corporate gig and they tell me: It’s cabaret seating. And I say: No, what you mean is it’s catering seating. I tell them: I would like a theatre style, if possible, so the audience can be as close to one another as possible because laughter is social. You need to be near someone else laughing, facing the stage and not at a table where you’re half looking over your shoulder. And I also say: Can I go on before dinner?”

“Why?” I asked.

Because the audience then is not drunk and tired. A friend of mine says the audience loses interest exponentially every minute after 9.30pm. That’s at a corporate gig where they haven’t invested to come and see the show. In a club it’s slightly different because they have decided to come and watch a comedy show.”

“Which audience is more drunk, though?” I asked.

“In the 1980s,” said Neil, “when the Comedy Store Players did corporate gigs and asked for suggestions from the audience, I was shocked by the level of filth the audience would shout out. These were people in front of their boss! But those were the days when there was an unlimited bar, so all social convention went out the window.”

Neil used to be in a double act – Mullarkey & Myers – with Mike Myers, who went on to appear in Saturday Night Live on US TV and to write and star in the Austin Powers movies. There is a YouTube video of Mullarkey & Myers in their 1985 Edinburgh Fringe show.

“The Comedy Store Players started in 1985,” Neil told me, “and around that time I used to host the Tuesday night and Mike and I did a longer 40-minute version of our show. We were on the bill with people like The Brown Paper Bag Brothers (Otis Cannelloni and John Hegley) and then, starting at 10.00pm or 10.30pm was the Open Mike Night and, by 2.00am, it was very odd. You had people with musical instruments talking about their time in mental health institutions.

“An Open Mike night at a comedy club back then did attract a certain kind of strange person. Now they have social media and other places to say what they might want to say. But that’s what the alternative comedy circuit was like in the 1980s. You’d be in some dodgy pub, there would be three people in the audience and twelve people performing and you would split the door take of £3. It was great fun.”

“Sounds much like it is now,” I said. “but there was maybe more of a variety of different types of act back then.”

“There was The Iceman,” said Neil.

The Iceman’s act – as previously blogged about – was simply to melt a block of ice. But he usually failed.

“I remember,” said Neil, “being at Banana Cabaret – a vast space – and there were three people howling with laughter at The Iceman – me, Mike Myers and Ian McPherson – all performers. All the ‘normal’ people were thinking: Where’s the entertainment in this? What’s going on? What’s the point? It was just brilliant, wonderful. It was such a riposte to showbiz smoothness and slickness that it was a joy to behold.”

“Did he have the repetitious music?” I asked.

I can’t realise you love me,” sang Neil enthusiastically. “And the sounds. Shhh-wssshhhhh. With the thunder and the rain. And then, after about 15 or 18 minutes it was I can’t realise you love me – But I don’t love you! – What?

“That was a joy to us. A joy. Because we had seen boring, hack performers.”

“Even then?” I asked.

“When I started in the 1980s with Mike Myers and Nick Hancock and occasionally on my own,” said Neil, “there would be a room above a pub and the other acts were weird non-professional stand-ups in their work clothes. Mike and I had rehearsed and put on different clothes to do the show. We did theatrical sketches that asked you to create the fourth wall.

“I remember one time in the mid-to-late 1980s seeing this very talented young guy – an open spot – who had incredible stage presence doing characters. He ran offstage between characters to change his costume and he had his manager with him. A manager! I had not heard this idea of having a manager. Surely you just turned up and took the cash? The act was a man called Steve Coogan.

Neil in the Comedy Store dressing room last night

Neil in the London Comedy Store’s dressing room last night

“Now there are people who were born after I started who leave university or college and say I want to be a comedian and they have a manager who will give them £50 a week and get them on the road and they can get better at their job and make a career. That was unheard-of in my day.

“When I started, there was The Comedy Store, Jongleurs, the Earth Exchange, a few student gigs and CAST New Variety. So there wasn’t much chance of making a career of it until, gradually, people like Off the Kerb and Avalon started opening up the idea of student shows and clubs outside London.”

“Aah! the Earth Exchange,” I said, “there’s the story of some act who threw meat at the audience and was not booked again.”

The Earth Exchange in Archway Road served only vegetarian food and the room was so tiny it felt as if the performers were almost sitting on your table.

“Steve Bowditch of The Greatest Show On Legs,” remembered Neil, “used to do a show called Naff Cabaret with a guy called Fred and the story is that, at the Earth Exchange, he pulled a top hat out of a rabbit.”

“Presumably a stuffed rabbit?” I asked.

“I don’t know. I don’t know,” said Neil. “It was one of those stories you hear.”

I think both of us hoped it was a real rabbit.

I asked Steve Bowditch about it this morning.

“Did you really pull a top hat out of a rabbit?” I asked him.

“Not that I remember,” said Steve. “But I might have done…”

Memory fades after a career in surrealism.

Neil also remembered: “They had a toilet onstage – Naff Cabaret – a toilet! and there would be showbiz music and – Ta-Daaah!! – they would pull a sausage out of the toilet as if it was a poo. Freud would have applauded this because comedy is We’re laughing at death and poo is death. Scatology is our escape from the inevitability of mortality.”

“I didn’t go to Cambridge University like you,” I said, “so I’ve not heard the idea that Comedy is laughing at death before.”

“Who knows?” said Neil. “Something like that. I haven’t read it myself, but I’m prepared to quote it. Why do we want laughter?… Is it to purge ourselves of the dark thoughts we have – and so the clown, the jester, the comedian brings out the darkness and makes it somehow acceptable?

Howard Jacobson writes wonderfully about how Comedy should be gritty and earthy and bring out all the snot and filth, because that’s its job. I dunno that I agree with that, but I can see there’s a role. You could say Frankie Boyle and Jimmy Carr are bringing out all the stuff that we dare not speak in regular discourse and making it entertainment, making the world somehow cleansed or purged.”

… CONTINUED HERE

ADDENDUM

Comedian Nick Revell tells me that the ‘Top Hat Out Of The Rabbit’ routine was done by Lumiere and Son in their 1980 show Circus Lumiere… and the act banned from the Earth Exchange for throwing meat was The Port Stanley Amateur Dramatic Society (Andy Linden and Cliff Parisi).

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Legendary cult act The Iceman talks of comedians Stewart Lee, Mike Myers &, inevitably, about melting blocks of ice

In Malcolm Hardee’s 1996 autobiography I Stole Freddie Mercury’s Birthday Cake, he says:

There was a man called Anthony Irvine, who did an act where he just crawled across the stage wearing a yellow souwester cape and Wellington boots, got up a ladder, then put a chain with a hook on it between the two parts of the stepladder and picked up a bag. He took a toothbrush out of the bag, cleaned his teeth, got down the steps and crawled off stage again. This took between ten and twenty minutes depending on audience response. Today he calls himself The Iceman and melts a block of ice on stage – that’s his act.

It is, indeed, an act in which he tries to melt blocks of ice in various increasingly desperate ways. You have to see it to believe, if not understand, it. I first saw The Iceman when I auditioned him in 1987 for TV show The Last Resort With Jonathan Ross. The audition is on YouTube.

The Iceman at home via Skype a couple of days ago

The Iceman at his secret home via Skype a couple of days ago

A couple of days ago, I talked to The Iceman via Skype.

“You can facilitate my comeback,” he told me.

“You’ve never been away,” I replied.

“My last booking was from Stewart Lee,” he said, “at the Royal Festival Hall for At Last The 1981 Show in 2011 – his Austerity show. You didn’t come.”

“No,” I admitted.

“I was one of the main acts, but they put me in the foyer,” he said. “I did a block of ice on both nights.”

“Did you get a good audience in the foyer?” I asked.

“The first night was quite arty,” he told me, “but there was a very small audience. The second night Stewart – I should say Stew – told the audience to go and see me and suddenly, in the interval, I was overwhelmed by people. So I hid in the audience. I infiltrated them and no-one really knew who I was. Then some guy took it on himself to plug me. He stood up and said The Iceman! The Iceman! and, of course, a lot of people thought HE was The Iceman.”

“Now you’re now a cult,” I said. “A living semi-mythical legend.”

“Yes,” he replied. “That’s why I don’t want to be over-exposed and why I’m in deepest Dorset. They’ll never find me here.”

“So why am I talking to you for my increasingly prestigious blog?” I asked.

“I want someone to visit my website,” said The Iceman. “I just want some visitors. I think because it’s called Iceblocked.co.uk it’s not a name that people recognise quickly.”

“You should call it TheIceman.com,” I suggested. “Like The Iceman cometh.”

“There’s millions of ice men,” said The Iceman. “But they’re mainly Mafia hit men.”

“Yes,” I sympathised, “best not to annoy them.”

“There are pictures of ice blocks for sale on the website,” said The Iceman.

Then he put a tap on his shoulder.

The Iceman felt a tap on his shoulder

The Iceman felt a tap on his shoulder – he won it in Edinburgh

“Ah! The Tap Water Award!” I said.

For several years, it was given at the Edinburgh Fringe as an alternative to the Perrier Award.

“Did you win it?” I asked.

“I won it in Edinburgh with Malcolm Hardee as a nominee,” said The Iceman, “but, in his autobiography, Malcolm claimed he won it. It’s very controversial.”

“Still,” I said. “You have it. Possession is nine tenths of the law.”

“But more valuable than the tap,” said The Iceman, “are the Polaroids of every block of ice I have melted…” Then he added: “At least, some of them… I am giving people an opportunity to buy photocopies of the Polaroids of the blocks I have melted over the years. You have never availed yourself of this opportunity.”

“I am but a poor struggling scribe,” I said, “and they are about £99 each aren’t they?”

The Iceman with his 42-block photo at the Royal Festival Hall

The Iceman (right) with 42-block photo at Royal Festival Hall

“At the Royal Festival Hall,” said The Iceman, “I sold my picture of 42 selected blocks to a bloke for £11. The frame had cost me about £20. His name was Tobias…”

The Iceman waited for me to react.

“Should I gasp?” I asked eventually.

“Tobias…” said The Iceman. “To-buy-us… That’s extraordinary, isn’t it?”

“Extraordinary,” I agreed.

“On YouTube,” The Iceman told me, “there is a video where you can see me dropping that night’s block into the River Thames after the Royal Festival Hall show.”

“Why did you drop the block into the Thames?” I asked.

“It had to go somewhere,” explained The Iceman. “Are you recording this?”

“Yes.”

“How are you? Can I interview you? I think I am going to film you.”

He held up a camera and started taking pictures of the Skyped image on his computer screen of me looking at him looking at me on my computer screen.

The Iceman started taking pictures of me looking at him

The Iceman took pictures of me looking at him looking at me

“What do you see your role as?” he asked me.

“A sadly free publicist to interesting people,” I replied.

“Every comedy person and bizarre person seems to have a link with you,” he said.

“Which are you?” I asked.

“You’re a conduit,” he said.

“I think there’s a lot of con going on,” I said, “and precious little duit.”

“What do you really think of the Iceman?” he asked.

“I think it’s a wonderful, surreal act,” I said. “But I’m shocked that this man bought Polaroids of ice blocks for only £21. I thought photocopies of Polaroids were £99 each.”

“I was feeling generous,” said The Iceman, who thought a little, then added: “Gener-ice… Do you think there’s any possibility that The Iceman… I call myself The Iceman, but I’m also called Melt It 69 by Mike Myers… Do you think there’s any possibility that somebody might ask me back?”

“Where?”

“Anywhere. To do a live performance.”

“One hopes so,” I replied. “What did you say about Mike Myers?”

“He refers to me as Melt It 69,” replied The Iceman, “because he came to see me melt Block 69.”

“This is Mike Myers,” I checked, “as in the now-Hollywood-film-star Mike Myers?”

“Yes,” confirmed The Iceman. “He did the early days of alternative comedy in Britain.”

Neil Mullarkey (left) & Mike Myers in the 1987 Wacaday children’s TV annual

Neil Mullarkey (left) & Mike Myers in the 1987 Wacaday children’s TV annual

“I know,” I said, “Mullarkey & Myers.”

“He saw me at one event,” said the Iceman, “and thought I was a genius. He is a fan.”

“This would,” I double-checked, “be Mike Myers the now-Austin-Powers-Hollywood-millionaire?… Have you approached him to buy a photocopy of a Polaroid of an ice block for £99?”

“I don’t know how to contact him,” said the Iceman. “I was hoping he would buy my entire works.”

“It is very hot, California,” I said. “They like ice there.”

“The only other fan I have, I think,” The Iceman said, “is Stewart Lee, who books me occasionally. Do you talk to Stew much?”

“Whenever I bump into him.” I said. “It would be churlish not to. He’s very nice.”

“N-ice,” said The Iceman thoughtfully. “I saw his show on TV on Saturday.”

“Did you enjoy it/“

“I did. He is funny.”

“He should have you on it,” I said. “You are the ultimate alternative comic.”

“He could have me in the foyer,” mused The Iceman.

… CONTINUED HERE

 

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Filed under Comedy, Performance, Surreal