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Ariane Sherine on why she gave up comedy and turned to Beautiful Filth

Ariane Sherine yesterday

Ariane Sherine was at Soho Theatre yesterday

Yesterday, the Guardian ran an online piece by Ariane Sherine, one of their regular writers. It was headlined:

I’D BEEN UNEMPLOYED FOR A YEAR… SO I FORMED A BAND, OF COURSE

and the subtitle was:

What’s a 34-year-old single mum on benefits meant to do when all else fails? Pursue the most unrealistic career path imaginable!

So, of course, yesterday I had a chat with Ariane.

“I did nine months on the comedy circuit in 2002/2003,” she told me.

“Why?” I asked.

“It’s just the most amazing thing to make a crowd of people laugh,” she told me. “I always think comedy is the truest art form because people can’t fake laughter. Anybody can clap after a performance out of politeness, but people don’t tend to laugh out of politeness. Not real, proper belly laughs. It feels wonderful and it feels like a validation of your own personality. If you think something’s funny and other people think it’s funny too, then they identify with you and it’s amazing, it’s wonderful and I loved it.”

“It’s like being hugged on stage?” I asked.

“I don’t know about a hug. It’s certainly warm.”

“But you stopped,” I said.

Arine Sheine was worried by a website

Ariane Sherine: worried by website

“I stopped comedy because I was so scared Steve Bennett might give me a terrible review on his Chortle website. I gave it up because I was scriptwriting and thought I don’t want producers to Google me, find this hypothetical Chortle review and think: Oh, she’s not funny.

“I still wanted that validation through my writing. I started writing for sitcoms. I wrote for Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps and My Family and material for Countdown. But you don’t really get credit for that: it’s never really your own because, on sitcoms, you have script editors who may ask you to do eight re-writes based on their notes and, by the end of it, it’s not your script any more. I have no particular wish to go back into scriptwriting, but I do really miss comedy.”

“So why not go back to it again?”

“Because the circuit is a harsh, cruel place,” Ariane laughed.

“So you’ve been sitting around doing nothing…” I said.

Beautiful Filth by The Lovely Electric - do not try this at home

Beautiful Filth by The Lovely Electric – smutty, maybe nutty

“I’m looking after my three-year-old daughter half the time,” replied Ariane, “and, the rest of the time, I’m always working on projects. I’ve been working on this album since January.

“Ah yes!” I said. “It’s you and a friend, you call yourself The Lovely Electric and the album is called Beautiful Filth. Out today.”

“And it’s available on iTunes and from Spotify,” said Ariane. “I wanted to do comedy songs because I missed doing stand-up.”

Tracks on her Beautiful Filth album include:

Don’t Have Sex With a Goat
Thank You For Not Smelling of Fish
I Think His Penis Died

The opening lyrics to the track Cum Face are:

You are so beautiful
I’d watch you at the IMAX
I love the way you look
Except for when you climax
You flare your nostrils out
And, for what it’s worth
You scrunch your cheeks up
Like a hamster giving birth

I don’t want to see your cum face
I don’t want to watch you come
I don’t want to see your cum face
So let’s do it up the bum
I don’t want to see your cum face
I’d rather watch my mum
I don’t want to see your cum face
So let’s do it up the bum

There is a video for the song Hitler Moustache on YouTube.

“My politics are very left-leaning,” Ariane told me, “and I think a lot of people I like might not like the album, because it’s very smutty.”

“So,” I said, “you decided to record a pop album whose lyrics are untransmittable on radio. Why? That’s no way to make money.”

“Well, you never know,” said Ariane. “Tim Minchin is pretty successful. But it is true Beautiful Filth is an album about sex. We don’t have any clean songs on it.”

“But why,” I asked,” write an album about sex in such a way that it can’t be widely disseminated?”

“Because it’s funny and the humour I enjoy is really rude. Think of Monty Python – The Penis Song. (There is a version on YouTube.)

Charlie Brooker reacts to Ariane’s Hitler Moustache

Charlie Brooker reacts to the Hitler Moustache

“How come Charlie Brooker is in your Hitler Moustache music video?” I asked.

“I met him when I was working in telly,” explained Ariane, “He’s the loveliest bloke. He has just helped me so much. He gave me my start in journalism because the Guardian asked him: Do you know any good comedy writers who could add a bit of levity to the comment pages? and he suggested me. So he’s basically responsible for my whole journalistic career. Then he gave me a quote for my last book, he gave me a quote for this album, he wrote for The Atheist’s Guide to Christmas, which was a book I edited, got me a job on Big Brother – writing the website stuff.”

“So why do you want to be a singer-songwriter now?”

“Because it’s fun and because I did a music degree. It culminated in work experience at the NME.”

“And you started writing at the NME?”

“Yes. Then I was runner-up in the BBC New Sitcom Writers Award. I started writing for Children’s BBC and other places. I’ve always been a writer in one form or another. But then I had a nervous breakdown in 2010.”

Ariane wrote about her feelings

The Guardian piece

“That,” I said, “was well before your daughter – who is now three – was born.”

“Yeah. I wrote a Guardian piece about it. Basically a load of really horrible things happened. I had had a very violent, disturbed childhood, so I got depressed in my teens – started cutting myself and became anorexic – and was put on a load of anti-depressants that didn’t help.

“I was pregnant when I was 24 and my boyfriend turned violent and hit me in the face and caused my ear to bleed and then he suffocated me and it was horrible. So that happened and then I kind of picked myself up from that after about a year but was still very depressed. I was 24.”

“You’re 34 now.”

Ariane at Atheist Bus Campaign launch with Richard Dawkins (Photograph by Zoe Margolis)

Ariane at Atheist Bus Campaign launch with Richard Dawkins (Photograph by Zoe Margolis)

“Yes. I was 24 and carried on writing for telly and then the Atheist Bus Campaign came out of a piece I had written for the Guardian. I got lots of threats when I did that. Random strangers. Religious people who didn’t like the campaign. I really, genuinely felt a bit… and I couldn’t work for… I didn’t feel able to do anything in public for over three years. My Guardian pieces stopped in August 2010 and it was only in December 2013 that I started writing again. It was a big chunk of time to lose, but…”

“What made you start again?” I asked.

“I was put on some anti-depressants that were Tricyclics, so they were different from the SSRIs that I was taking before.”

“SSRIs?” I asked.

“Things like Prozac and Seroxat. But now I’m on this amazing one. It’s amazing and it has just made life worth living again.”

“There was,” I said, “an act I knew called the Amazing Mr Smith who was given Seroxat. Last year, he took it for two nights and then killed himself by jumping off a cliff.”

“Sometimes they can make you a lot worse before they make you better,” said Ariane. “When you read the leaflet and you read This medication might induce suicidal thoughts you think Well why am I taking it?”

“But you’re OK now?” I asked.

“Well, I’m on three different medications now: anti-psychotic ones, anti-convulsant and anti-depressant.”

“Anti-psychotic is different from anti-depressant,” I said.

“It’s a horrible thing,” said Ariane. “I was convinced people were trying to kill me. I was convinced the government and MI5 were out to kill me.”

“As you were working for the Guardian,” I said, “maybe they were.”

“I remember the caretaker in my block of flats,” said Ariane, “was scrubbing the walls outside and I was convinced he was doing it to spy on me. When you get to that state that you’re convinced everybody’s out to get you, you can’t walk down the road because you’re scared and I desperately needed help and I got put on these anti-psychotics, but they alone didn’t make everything better.

“Then I got pregnant and I couldn’t be put on anything else. So I spent my pregnancy planning my suicide.”

“How were you going to kill yourself?”

“Helium.”

“You were going to laugh yourself to death?” I asked.

“I’m glad I can laugh about it now,” said Ariane.

“I’m interested in comedians,” I said, “because they’re all mad as hatters.”

“Well,” said Ariane, “for years I was so terrified of letting people know I was struggling with mental illness but, as soon as I did, there were all these journalists and comedians who told me: I’ve had the same thing. It was amazing,

“I think these pills I’m on have actually given me courage I would not have had ordinarily. So I don’t see it as brave to come out as mentally ill – it’s just these pills I’m on. There’s no way I would ever have been able to do it without the pills.”

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How ex-garbage handler Bruce Dessau owes his career as a comedy critic to the ‘uninteresting’ comedian Stewart Lee

Bruce Dessau as he likes to be seen on his Facebook page

Bruce Dessau as he likes to be seen on his Facebook page

In yesterday’s blog, highly-regarded London Evening Standard comedy critic Bruce Dessau defended his profession. But how did he become a comedy critic?

“Did you ever perform?” I asked him.

“No. Absolutely never performed. Not really had any interest in it,” he said.

“You came up through local newspapers?” I asked. ”Reports on garden shows?”

“Never really had any interest in journalism either,” he told me. “Never wrote anything for the college magazine. After I left London University, I wanted to stay in London because I was a music fan. I was staying at a house in Camberwell with a typewriter and thought I’ll write a review of that gig I saw last night. I sent it to the NME. They said: We really liked it. Why don’t you tell us what gigs you’d like to review and we might commission you and we’ll pay you. So I became a music journalist, but never trained.”

“So you went straight from university to journalism?”

“Via being a dustman in Belsize Park,” explained Bruce. “I was Peter Cook’s dustman. The funny thing is when I left my house in Camberwell at 6.30am I often saw a near-neighbour Peter Richardson (of The Comic Strip) coming home from a late night out, so it was a bit of a comedy route as well as my comedy roots. But that’s the only other job I’ve ever had. Being a dustman.

“I was at Time Out for about 8 or 9 years – started on music, then more on the TV section and then edited things from there. But, when I was doing TV, they used to call me ‘Mr Comedy’ – I would always do Vic & Bob or The Fast Show or Harry Enfield.

“The 1990s were my Time Out years. I handed in my notice the day the New Year Millennium edition went to press. I planned to go freelance – there were actually jobs in journalism in those days – only 14 years ago! – but, out of the blue, I got offered a job editing the TV section of the Saturday Express magazine. That was when the paper was edited by Rosie Boycott, so it was a different paper then, with different aspirations. About a year later, it was taken over by Richard Desmond and he wanted to strip everything back – no pun intended – so I left to go freelance again and… basically I owe everything to Stewart Lee.

Stewart Lee’s North American friend Baconface at the 2013 Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards (Photography by Keir O’Donnell)

Comic Stewart Lee’s Canadian friend Baconface performs at the 2013 Malcolm Hardee Awards (Photograph by Keir O’Donnell)

“I got sent a copy of one of Stewart Lee’s books when he was in the doldrums and he wasn’t doing very well and no-one was interested – I think it was the one called The Perfect Fool. I was getting quite pressured from his agency (Avalon) to do an interview with him but I didn’t really think anyone would be interested in Stewart Lee. As a courtesy, I thought Oh, I might as well pitch this to someone, so I emailed the Arts editor of the Evening Standard – I had never written for them before – and they said No, we’re not remotely interested in Stewart Lee, but we ARE looking for a new comedy critic. So I started at the Evening Standard in the summer of 2001, just before 9/11 and I never did do the Stewart Lee interview, but I owe it all to him.”

“The fickle finger of fate,” I said. “Now everyone wants a Stewart Lee interview. You can never tell who is going to succeed.”

“Sometimes you know when people are going to be stars,” said Bruce. “Maybe I should have stayed a music journalist. I would be much better spotting future music stars than future comedy stars. I saw U2 at the Half Moon and it was obvious Bono should be climbing on amplifiers at the O2 Arena and not at a pub in Herne Hill.

“But, with comedy, the acts I have really loved I’ve usually thought They’re never going to be big and often I was wrong.

“Like Micky Flanagan who I used to see doing stuff at The Hob when he was about 40. I thought Yeah, he’s very good. I like him very much. But this is kind of his level. Then somehow, when the Comedy Gods decided to make comedy for arenas, he got swept up and I think he now does more dates at the O2 than Beyoncé.

“The main case of me being wrong was Vic & Bob. When they had their residency in Deptford and they did pubs, I used to go and see them every Thursday night long before they did TV. I thought: This is brilliant. They can attract 100 people every Thursday night in South London but, if they try North London, they’ll get 3 people. I could never have predicted Vic & Bob would get as big as they did. But, once they make it, it kind of makes sense.

“The interesting thing I’ve seen in comedy in the last few years is a whole new generation becoming the establishment. And the whole conveyor belt nature of comedians where they fall off the other end and fall out of favour – or not even fall out of favour, but people like Vic & Bob and Harry Enfield or Ben Elton.

“I used to watch the TV series Skins and suddenly all the comics I thought were young, hip comedians were suddenly all playing the parents. Harry Enfield, Morwenna Banks, Bill Bailey and even at one point Chris Addison cropped up as a dad.

“It all moves on. Jack Dee is a bit Tony Hancock and a bit Les Dawson. And you now can’t imagine Alexei Sayle as an angry 21-year-old.”

Bruce’s book on the dark side of comedy

Bruce’s book on comedy’s dark side

“Your latest book is Beyond a Joke,” I said, “about the dark side of comedians.”

“It was about the history of comedy,” said Bruce, “and the history of all these troubled comedians from Grimaldi to Tony Hancock and so on and I kind of thought it was a thing of the past – comedians being slightly dysfunctional.

“I wrote the book around the time Russell Brand was breaking through and he’s in the book, but it’s quite obvious there are plenty of other stories – Malcolm Hardee’s in the book, obviously.

“My dilemma to resolve was Are strange people attracted to stand-up comedy or does stand-up comedy make people strange? I think I concluded it’s a bit of both. Strange people are attracted to it but, if you’re normal and you’re attracted to it, you’ll end up strange. It doesn’t make strange people normal, but it does make normal people strange.

“It’s like Jimmy Carr says – You’re the only person in a room with 2,000 people facing the wrong way. You’re on your own. That’s why it’s weirder than being in a band. It’s a solo thing. And it’s weirder than being an actor because you’re supposedly saying your own words, particularly this autobiographical, authentic comedy. Various comedians say It’s like therapy but, rather than us pay a therapist, we do our gigs and we get paid for the therapy. But I don’t know if it’s effective as therapy, because they still seem a pretty screwed-up bunch.”

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Steve Bennett, editor of Chortle UK comedy website, says his criticism is fair

Steve Bennett, owner and editor of Chortle website

Steve Bennett thought about a music or movie site

The annual Chortle Awards are held tomorrow night at the Café de Paris in London’s West End.

The Chortle comedy website has been running since 2000.

I asked Chortle’s originator and editor Steve Bennett about the first Awards ceremony.

“It was basically just a piss-up in the Comedy Cafe’s bar,” he told me, “and I’d home-made them with the Chortle logo spectacles just nailed to a bit of wood.”

“And now they are…?”

“Better,” said Steve. “And the Chortle Awards are the only ones that cover live comedy nationally, really. The British Comedy Awards used to have a stand-up category but don’t any more.”

“When you started Chortle, you were a sub-editor for the Mail On Sunday...” I said.

“No,” he corrected me. “I was a local newspaper editor for the Informer free group in Surrey and West London. There was the Informer group and various other titles. We had the Surrey Herald for a bit.

“So I thought The internet is the way forward but the company weren’t that interested in websites. So then I thought What am I interested in? and I liked music and comedy and films and there were already music sites and IMDB and Empire but there was no site dedicated to comedy.”

“That was very smart of you,” I said, “That was about five years before other people twigged print was really dead.”

The Chortle website homepage this morning

The Chortle homepage today

“After I’d been going a couple of months,” Steve explained, “I got signed up by a ‘proper’ dotcom company – they had seed capital and all that – so I gave up my newspaper job and went to work for them in a trendy brewery in Brick Lane. They lasted two months. They took me to Edinburgh in August 2000 and then they went bust in September. They pissed away a lot of money because they had all these grand ambitions. They wanted to do everything; it was towards the end of the dotcom bubble.”

“But you carried on with comedy because…?”

“Because, if you looked in the Comedy section of Time Out, you just saw a list of names with odd adjectives, but it didn’t really tell you what they were like; there wasn’t enough space. On a website, you could click on a link and get more information.”

“And also,” I suggested, “you can get comedy advertising from clubs, TV, video companies, movie releases, festivals, management, agents… it’s more than just one advertising stream.”

“I didn’t think that through at the time,” said Steve. “I wasn’t that commercially-minded at all.”

“It was presumably not financially viable from the start?” I asked. “It took – what? – three years?”

“No, a lot longer. Obviously, that was the advantage of being a journalist: you could pick up freelance work. So when the dotcom went bust, I was picking up freelance work at the Mirror and the Mail On Sunday.”

“And journalists have pretty thick skins.” I said. “People must slag you off over bad reviews on Chortle.”

“Not to my face so much,” explained Steve. “I know it goes on, but what can you do? The thing I get all the time is Oh, he’s a failed performer! They think everyone wants to do what they do, but I don’t.”

“You’ve never performed comedy?”

The Chortle Awards at the Cafe de Paris, London

Chortle Awards are tomorrow at the Cafe de Paris, London

“No. It would be a horrible car crash. I don’t really like it. I have to present Chortle Award winners at the end of the student heats, but I just look awkward and uncomfortable and it’s not my skillset. I do what I do. I get to work in comedy, I get to play to my strengths. Why put myself through it? And also the more you know about comedy, the more you know you can’t do it. If I thought I had an aptitude – which I don’t – it would still take four years before I could stand on stage and be OK. I like comedy, but I don’t like being in the spotlight.”

“So you must like to be hated for giving bad reviews?”

“It’s probably not very nice to be written about, especially if you get one star. But there’s no answer to that. You can’t go round being nice to everybody and giving them all 4-star reviews. You have to be honest about it and hope that, over 13 years, people know that I’m trying to give an honest reaction.

“I’m also quite happy that I’m not just a reviewer. The website is used as a resource and has news on it. That’s mine. I made that. I’m proud of that. It would be weirder if my whole job was just being a critic.”

“So you’re proud of being an editor rather than just a critic?”

“Yeah. I think I have created something.”

“So who reads Chortle? Just comedians?”

“It’s not just comics and the comedy industry. If they all used it, that would just be about 5%-10% of my audience. It’s comedy geeks as well. Just as the NME is read by all the up-and-coming musicians but also by all the people who are interested in up-and-coming and established musicians… so are we. We are the comedy industry’s version of the NME.”

“I’ve written film and comedy reviews in the past,” I told Steve. “But I tended to write features and interviews, not reviews, because then I didn’t have to say some things are shit.”

“The difference between writing film reviews and comedy reviews,” said Steve, “is that you’re not going to see Tom Cruise in the bar afterwards whereas, in comedy, you’re immersed in it. People are around the whole time and I’m on the circuit three or four times a week; you bump into people.”

“Have you had people attack you?”

Comedy critics face fragile egos and non-comedic reaction

Comedy critics face fragile egos and non-comedic reactions…

“Not for a while. A long time ago there were a couple of people. Verbally. But they tended to be people who were, for want of a better word, a Jongleurs act. They’re very good at crowd control; they’re very good at doing that specific comedy job, but they may be treading water. Especially when I first started, people would say Who’s this guy? Why’s he saying this isn’t very good? I’ve been doing comedy for twenty years!

“All I can write is whether I enjoyed it or not and explain to the best of my ability why I felt that way.”

“So when you write about an act, you don’t try to criticise it but to be constructively objective?”

“Ye-e-e-es…,” said Steve. “There are probably about 3% or 4% of shows I see that are just awful and appalling and I can’t think of a good word to say. But mostly you try and say… Well, it’s like being a director, I suppose. If you asked me my advice, this is what I would tell you, right or wrong.”

“So writing a review is not like being a heckler,” I suggested. “It’s like giving Director’s Notes to an actor… Objective insight into a performance after it has happened.”

“I would hope so,” replied Steve. “But you give the notes very publicly and everyone sees them. You also want to write entertainingly and write for a general audience.”

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