Tag Archives: Nunhead

The black man fails to show up but the god-like comic Simon Munnery shines

Last night, comedy club Pull The Other One’s second monthly show in Herne Hill was packed, so word-of-mouth must have spread about last month’s bizarre events which I blogged about here.

During last month’s show, a very large black man with one eye, a speech defect, a shaven head, a beard and a doctor’s stethoscope round his neck sat in a gold costume alone at a table right in front of the stage occasionally re-arranging half-glimpsed works of art on the surface in front of him. In any other show, he would have been a disruptive distraction but, given Pull The Other One’s unique mix of surreality, alternative variety and downright bizarreness, he actually fitted right in with the show. It turned it into a two-ring circus.

I went to the Half Moon venue in Herne Hill again last night half-hoping the black man and his half-glimpsed mysterious works of art would make a comeback. Alas he wasn’t there. But Charmian Hughes, who had been one of four comperes last month and was one of three comperes last night  (look – it works, it adds to the oddness, so don’t ask) told me:

“That man with the stethoscope gave me a picture of a face which is half pharaoh and half enslaved black man. It’s actually really effective and I’ve hung it up. The title is Was my ancestor illegally detained?’’

Charmian had done a sand dance during last month’s show (again, don’t ask).

“He must,” Charmian continued, “have found it quite a strange coincidence that he went to a show on his night off from Egyptology or whatever he’s into and someone started talking about Egypt and the pharaohs and did a sand dance on stage.”

“Well,” I thought, “It wasn’t just him who found it strange.”

Last night, in an unusual move for Pull The Other One, they actually had three straight(-ish) stand-up comics in among real magic from David Don’t, Sam Fletcher’s fake magic, Charmian’s explanation of the Abelard & Heloise story using pandas, Holly Burn’s… well… indescribably odd performances… and the equally odd Nick Sun’s audience-baiting.

Towards the end of his set, Nick Sun persuaded the audience to show their appreciation (and they were very enthusiastically appreciative of his odd act throughout) to boo him and heckle him and he refused to leave the stage except in silence. He took any clapping as inappropriate and refused to leave except to complete silence. A good bit of memorable schtick.

The three stand-ups included the extremely good Maureen Younger, who shamed me. I was then and still am ashamed because I had never seen her perform before and I am amazed I had not seen someone that good. An absolutely top-notch and clearly highly experienced professional. My only excuse is that she seems to have worked abroad a lot. And that’s not much of an excuse. Woe is me. The shame. The shame.

Steve Jameson’s Borscht Belt character act Sol Bernstein – much admired by many – leaves me a bit cold because I have some general problem with watching live character comedy, which brings me on to Simon Munnery, who is on stunningly good form at the moment.

He was introduced as “a legend” which he certainly is, even though his existence is not in question and has been independently authenticated. He has always been extremely good but I have now seen him twice in two weeks and I am very surprised.

It’s rare for a comic to keep getting better. After a lot of experience, a good comic usually reaches a plateau of excellence. You don’t expect him or her to get better and he or she doesn’t have to. They have reached a plateau of excellence. Simon Munnery reached that plateau ages ago but now seems to be getting even better. It’s not that he wasn’t excellent before, but he is even better now.

As I said, I have a blank and difficult-to-explain spot about character comedy and I was never much impressed (though everyone else was) with Simon’s very early character Alan Parker: Urban Warrior.

I’ve always liked Simon as a person but it wasn’t until I saw Cluub Zarathustra at the Edinburgh Fringe in 1994 that I really started to appreciate his act. I thought the subsequent 2001 TV series Attention Scum! slightly watered-down the amazingly admirable nastiness of Cluub Zarathustra.

Simon’s original character which was OTT with audience-despising Nietzschean superiority and contempt for the audience in Cluub Zarathustra had (it seemed to me) been watered-down into the less-though-still-effective League Against Tedium.

The Attention Scum! TV series (directed by Stewart Lee) was highly original and, legend has it, much disliked by BBC TV executives until it was nominated for the prestigious Golden Rose of Montreux in 2001, at which point they had to feign enthusiastic support despite having already decided not to produce a second series.

Perhaps it was too interesting for them.

Simon’s League Against Tedium and Buckethead character shows were always interesting but sometimes variable – you can see that a man with an orange bucket over his head spouting poetry might partially alienate a more mainstream audience.

I think the less Simon hid behind a character and the more he started to perform as himself (well, as much as any comic does) the better and better and better he became.

In 2003, he contributed to Sit-Down Comedy, the Random House anthology of original writing which Malcolm Hardee and I commissioned and edited to which 19 stand-up comedians contributed short pieces. (Now newly available for download in Apple iBooks for iPad and in a Kindle edition.)

Simon at first submitted Noble Thoughts of a Noble Mind – basically a print version of his 2002 Edinburgh Fringe show which I thought was fascinating. It took me aback that the printed version was even better than the performed version. I think I had seen the hour-long show twice yet, when I read it on the page, I realised I had missed some of the verbal and mental cleverness.

He eventually supplied The True Confessions of Sherlock Holmes, a wonderfully original story. When I read it, it was one of only three times in my life that I have ever laughed out loud while reading a piece of writing (the other two occasions were both Terry Southern books – Blue Movie and one tiny section of The Magic Christian)

Simon wrote The True Confessions of Sherlock Holmes after the publishers of Sit-Down Comedy thought Noble Thoughts of a Noble Mind was too complicatedly experimental. Well, I think they thought it was too original and too intellectual; that’s often a problem with publishers.

And it has always been Simon’s semi-problem. Arguably too clever. Too original.

Until now, quite a lot of his acts – with sections often tending towards performance art – have been slightly hit-and-miss and I think sometimes too dense with intellectual, mental and linguistic cleverness to fully succeed with an only-half-paying-attention mainstream comedy audience. That’s not a criticism of audiences as dim; but sometimes audiences who had not seen Simon perform before were not expecting what they got. You had to pay very close attention.

Last night, there was a gag involving Sisyphus and Icarus which was wonderfully explained, became part of a cluster of linked, overlapping gags and even managed to bring in modern-day, up-to-the-minute economics.

Simon used to be intellectual and much-loved by the Guardian-reading chattering classes of Islington – and he still is. But now he seems to have pulled off the neat trick of losing none of his intellectual content but performing a highly intelligent act which is populist and maintains a uniformity of laughter-making for all audiences.

In other words, he’s bloody funny from beginning to end and has an astonishing act of overlapping, densely-packed gags and observations which in no way dumbs down yet is totally accessible to a mainstream audience.

How he has done it I don’t know, but he has.

I once tried to persuade Simon that we should follow in L.Ron Hubbard’s footsteps and write a book about philosophy which many in the UK would see as a joke but which many in California might read without irony and blindly believe in as a new religion. That way, we could make money now, have a laugh and statues of him might be worshipped in 2,000 years as a God-like figure.

He wasn’t impressed.

Maybe because today many already worship him as a godlike figure in British comedy.

Quite right too.

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Pull The Other One – crying with laughter at surreal, non-PC performance art – OK, it was WEIRD night

I try not to describe comedy shows in too much detail but…

I have seen some bizarre Pull The Other One last-Friday-of-the-month shows at Nunhead in Peckham, South East London, but last night’s must take the nutty biscuit.

It was the first of Pull The Other One’s new first-Friday-of-the-month shows at the Half Moon in nearby Herne Hill and the ghost of Andy Kaufman seemed to have been raised from his grave for the occasion.

It was performance art that would make Damien Hirst’s shark in formaldehyde seem like a John Constable painting and Tracey Emin’s unmade bed seem like a perfectly normal idea.

And it wasn’t just the acts that were odd last night…

For the first third of the show, a very large black man with one eye, a speech defect, a shaven head, a beard and what appeared to be an MP3 player plugged into his ears sat in a gold costume alone at a table right in front of the stage.

Before the show started and for most of Part One (it was a three-part show), he fiddled obsessively with three flattish oblong white cardboard boxes which contained wooden-framed pictures of what appeared to be wood cuttings. He would take them out and put them back in, look at them and stand them on the table facing the rest of the audience and arrange and re-arrange them. He was very interested in them. And in the show. On which he occasionally commented. He was almost a performance artist in himself.

I thought maybe he was deaf and the MP3 player was a hearing aid – or maybe he was mentally retarded. Or maybe he was an act; even though I knew he wasn’t.

He must have been bemused or confused when, right at the very start of the show, compere-for-the-evening Vivienne Soan explained her husband Martin Soan was at home but then he appeared naked, behind her, with a brown paper bag over his head. She appeared not to notice him.

And then he must have then been further confused when compere-for-the-evening Vivienne Soan introduced compere-for-the-evening Charmian Hughes who did some topical material and a sand dance which the large man much appreciated and then compere-for-the-evening Charmian introduced compere-for-the-evening Holly Burn.

Holly Burn is a girl for whom the word “surreal” is a wild understatement; it would be like calling the one billion population of China “a man from the Orient”. She is billed on Pull The Other One’s flyers as “Bonkers But Brilliant” though, off-stage, she is only the third B in that billing.

On-stage is another matter.

She introduced the almost equally odd ‘magician’ Sam Fletcher (it was really a surrealist act), American comic Matt Baetz (the token stand-up on the bill) and then Holly (or perhaps by this time Vivienne Soan was compere-for-the-evening again) introduced two-minutes of vitriolic abuse shouted at the audience by The Obnoxious Man (played by Tony Green, of whom more in tomorrow’s blog)

This took us to the first interval of the evening, during which the very large black man with one eye, a speech defect, a shaven head, a beard and what appeared to be an MP3 player plugged into his ears decamped from his table, taking two of his three frames with him and wheeling a child’s scooter in front of him. I could see the woman sitting at the next table to him breathing an almost visible sigh of relief.

Part Two involved Holly Burn (or perhaps by this time Vivienne Soan was again compere-for-the-evening) introducing charismatic compere-for-the-evening Stephen Frost who introduced the amazingly sophisticated Earl Okin as “a sex goddess”.

Earl, even more so than normal, went down a storm with an audience primed by 40 minutes or so of surreal comedy and who now had unleashed on them his highly sophisticated crooning, jazz, satiric folk music and a version of Wheatus’ song I’m Just a Teenage Dirtbag, Baby sung as a bossa nova. The result, before my eyes, was a British comedy audience transformed into some kind of energetically-enthusiastic whooping American TV audience.

Boy, did they enjoy Earl Okin.

In the second interval, I went to the toilet and encountered the very large black man with one eye, a speech defect, a shaven head, a beard and what appeared to be an MP3 player plugged into his ears. It turned out he didn’t quite have a totally shaven head. He had a slogan which I could not quite read shaved in hair around the back of his head.

He was back in his place for Part Three at his table by the very front of the stage.

Now…

I have seen American comic Doctor Brown (not to be confused with Doc Brown) several times and, to be frank, his act can be a bit hit-and-miss. Well, it’s not so much an act. It’s more a let’s-go-on-stage and see-what-might-happen-with-the-audience performance. On the basis of last night, he should team up with the very large black man with one eye, a speech defect, a mostly shaven head, a beard and what appeared to be an MP3 player plugged into his ears.

Doctor Brown’s schtick involves a certain nutty reticence to perform which, last night, meant a certain reluctance to come on stage at all and the very large black man with one eye, a speech defect, a mostly shaven head, a beard and what appeared to be an MP3 player plugged into his ears took it upon himself to encourage Doctor Brown, whom he assumed was a genuinely shy performer.

“Come on, you can do it,” was one early comment. “Come on stage, man, you can do it.”

The good Doctor played to this and – rather bravely, I felt – decided to incorporate the gent in his act which eventually culminated in his – even more bravely – inviting the guy up onto the stage.

It turned out that the very large black man with one eye, a speech defect, a mostly shaven head, a beard, a gold costume and what appeared to be an MP3 player plugged into his ears, in fact, did not have an MP3 player plugged into his ears at all: it was a doctor’s stethoscope which he wore round his neck and, at his throat, he had a four-inch high bright white skull ornament. His below-the-knee gold costume was augmented by red hobnailed boots

Doctor Brown proceeded to auction off the doctor’s stethoscope and skull to the audience, though he actually stopped short of giving away the items. He also got perilously close to squeezing a bottle of Heinz tomato ketchup over the guy’s shaven head or allowing the guy to squeeze it over his head. I have a terrible feeling he almost went through with this idea but pulled back from the unknown precipice at the last moment.

By this point, I was crying with laughter.

Non-PC?

Oh yes. And the whole audience was laughing. And the guy on stage with Doctor Brown. And the other comics more than anyone.

Trust me. You had to be there.

After the very large black man with one eye, a speech defect, a mostly shaven head, a beard, a gold costume, red hobnailed boots and a doctor’s stethoscope left the stage, Doctor Brown turned to the audience and said simply:

“Does anyone have any questions?”

He then produced a robin redbreast bird (don’t ask) which he talked to, then unzipped the flies of his trousers and partially inserted the bird, head first. He turned his back on the audience and climaxed his show by being sucked-off by the robin redbreast.

The good Doctor then exited to much applause, having dropped the robin onto the stage.

Martin Soan then appeared on stage to retrieve the robin, to which he talked lovingly until Doctor Brown returned to demand the bird back. A vitriolic argument ensued about who had more rights to and more of a personal history with the robin, which ended with a rough tussle between the two men on the floor and Martin Soan somehow ending up naked on stage with a brown paper bag over his head.

We were back at the start of the evening, at which point Vivienne Soan rounded it all off by announcing future Pull The Other One shows at the Half Moon in Herne Hill will include John Hegley, Simon Munnery and the extremely surreal Andrew Bailey.

Andrew will have his work cut out to top last night’s bizarre shenanigans.

In tomorrow’s blog – what Tony Green told me at Pull The Other One about Andy Kaufman, another dead comic; and the tale of our visit to fetish club Torture Garden.

There is a Pull The Other One video HERE

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Variety is not dead in Britain – not with the Royal wedding of William and Kate AND Pull The Other One

I saw a repeat of The Story of Variety with Michael Grade on BBC TV recently. The argument was that variety is dead. Michael Grade (unusually) was wrong. Two things yesterday proved this to me: the Royal Wedding and a monthly Pull The Other One comedy show in Peckham, home of Only Fools and Horses – no connection with the Royal Wedding.

At school, I took British Constitution for ‘A’ Level so i am a very strong supporter of the institution of a constitutional monarchy, but I have absolutely no interest at all in the soap opera of the Royal Family. If left to my own devices yesterday, I might have switched on BBC1 to see the RAF fly-past at the Royal Wedding and perhaps I would have watched the drive back from Westminster Abbey to Buckingham Palace in case anyone got assassinated.

As it was, I was with a friend who is a feminist republican. (Note, if you are an American reader, a republican is almost the opposite of what you might think: more left wing than right wing).

Of course, like almost all British republicans, she is obsessed with reading about and watching the Royals and following the soap opera and I had to sit through the whole thing on TV.

We had recently sat through Lindsay Anderson’s surreal movie If…. together and yesterday, when it got to the marriage bit where camp-looking churchmen in kitsch golden dresses were intoning sleep-inducing words and the congregation was awash with politicians, Royals, the upper classes and Elton John, I half expected Malcolm McDowell to appear high up in the Abbey among the gargoyles desperately firing an AK-47 at the congregation who would flood out the doors of the Abbey into Parliament Square where mortar bombs would explode.

Perhaps my mind wandered a little.

But men intoning the word of God in funny costumes always stimulates the surreal nodes in my brain.

My friend did make the interesting point that, apart from Kate Middleton, the colourful service was an entirely male affair apart from two nuns sitting to one side dressed in drab grey among the men in bright colours and the presumably-repeatedly-buggered choirboys in white surplices. It looked to me like the two nuns had been hired from Central Casting. One was unnecessarily tall and the other was unnecessarily small. It was like watching that classic comedy sketch where John Cleese is upper class and Ronnie Corbett is working class.

I am Sister Superior; I am taller than her and nearer to God… and I am Sister Inferior; I know my place.

Even when they sat down, the tall one was twice the height as the small one – that never normally happens. I began to fantasise about special effects and trapdoors in the pews.

The real pisser for me, though, was that the BBC TV director managed to miss the shot of the Lancaster, Spitfire and Hurricane flying down the length of The Mall. That was the only reason I was watching the thing – other than the possibility of visually interesting assassinations – and it was almost as bad as ITN missing the Royal Kiss on the balcony when Charles married Di.

Everything else was so impeccably stage-managed, I couldn’t understand why they missed the shot. I particularly loved the trees and random greenery inside Westminster Abbey though I found the chandeliers distracting. I don’t remember chandeliers inside the Abbey. Did they come with the trees as part of a special offer from B&Q?

The Royal Wedding guests included Elton John, an invisible Posh & Becks and the distractingly visible two nuns.

In the evening, I went to the monthly Pull The Other One comedy show in Peckham, which similarly attracts performers who come along to see the show but not to participate. This month it was writer Mark Kelly, actor Stephen Frost and surreal performer Chris Lynam. As I have said before, you know it is a good venue if other performers come to see the shows.

Pull The Other One is not a normal comedy show in that its performers are almost entirely speciality acts not stand-up comedians. If you need a break from reality, I recommend Pull The Other One as a good place to go. And the compering is usually as odd as the acts.

With Vivienne Soan on tour in Holland, the always energetic Holly Burn – the Miss Marmite of Comedy as I like to think of her – compered with Charmian Hughes and the latter performed an Egyptian sand dance in honour of the Royal wedding. Don’t ask, I don’t know, but it was very funny.

Martin Soan, Holly Burn and massed wind-up puppets performed Riverdance.

The extraordinarily larger-than-life Bob Slayer surprisingly did balloon modelling and unsurprisingly drank a pint of beer in one gulp.

Juggler Mat Ricardo (to be seen at the Edinburgh Fringe this August in the Malcolm Hardee Awards Show) still has some of the best spesh act patter around.

Magician David Don’t – who had variable success last month when he used blind-folded members of the audience throwing darts at each other – unusually succeeded in an escapology act involving a giant Royal Mail bag, although it’s the last time I want to see a banker with no clothes on and a Union flag coming out of his groin.

Earl Okin did wonderful musical things with his mouth.

And, to round off the evening Matthew Robins, with ukulele and accordion accompaniment, performed a shadow puppet story about murder and mutilation and a visit to the zoo. It is rare to see a shadow puppet show about someone getting his fingers cut off with pliers, his sister hanging from a rope and the audience spontaneously singing along to “I wanted you to love me, but a snake bit my hand…”

But it is more interesting than watching the Archbishop of Canterbury with his grey wild-man-of-the-desert hair wearing a gold dress and a funny pointy party hat in Westminster Abbey.

Pull the Other One – on the last Friday of every month – is never ever predictable and Stephen Frost, keen to appear, lamented to me the fact it is fully booked with performers until November.

Most interesting line of the evening – of the whole day, in fact – came from Earl Okin, who pointed out what a historic Wedding Day this was…

Because it was exactly 66 years ago to the day when Adolf Hitler married Eva Braun.

“It doesn’t bode well,” Earl said.

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Comedy, burlesque and going OTT at PTOO with a naked Irish Riverdance in Peckham, London

There seem to be two separate ‘circuits’ in London at the moment: the amorphous alternative comedy circuit and the burlesque circuit. The latter seems to meander from stripper-type-tease to glimpses of old-style variety to fetish-style stuff with more than a nod to Berlin cabaret between-the-Wars.

Most of the straight comedy shows nowadays are a just a string of stand-ups with maybe, occasionally, an odd act thrown in. Vivienne and Martin Soan’s monthly Pull The Other One club in Nunhead (that’s Peckham to me and you) is clearly not burlesque; but it is not one of the amorphous straight comedy nights either.

It is old-style variety mingled with comic performance art plus usually one big-name straight stand up. It is never short of the unexpected and bizarre, so it’s no surprise that Pull The Other One regulars Bob Slayer and Holly Burn both appear in the April issue of Bizarre magazine as New Alternative Comedy Heroes.

The average Pull The Other One show does not exist and it is a sign of how unusual it is that it has always attracted comedians to its audience. Last month Boothby Graffoe was there in the audience just to enjoy it; this month it was Stephen Frost.

The Big Name stand up on the bill last night was multi-talented Omid Djalili, a man who can move with nary a blink from appearing in Gladiator, The MummyPirates of the Caribbean and James Bond movies to club gigs on the London comedy circuit to playing Fagin in Oliver! at the London Palladium and having his own TV series on BBC1. His career is almost as variety-filled as a Pull The Other One show.

I missed most of last night’s show because main speciality act Paul Morocco had got cut down earlier in the day with a very serious stomach bug and couldn’t appear – well, it’s a tribute to his professionalism that he would have appeared if Vivienne Soan had not been able to find a fill-in sharpish. But Paul’s amazing act includes juggling, a lot of bopping around and blowing/juggling multiple ping pong balls from his mouth. This is not ideal if you have a serious stomach bug and just want to lie in bed and die with the pain.

So I missed most of last night’s show because I was picking up and driving my chum Melbourne-based Irish fiddle-playing comic vagabond Aindrias de Staic from the West End to Nunhead after he appeared in two performances of Woody Sez at the Arts Theatre in London’s West End. Aindrias is not so much jet-lagged as show-lagged. He is over in London to appear in Woody Sez until 2nd April – another two shows today – and tomorrow he performs his one-man show Around The World on 80 Quid at the Pleasance Theatre in Islington.

So last night, at 9.35, we were legging it to my car to get to Pull The Other One in time – parking mid-evening on a Friday in the West End had not been fun.

Aindrias decided in the car on the way to the venue what he was going to do: mostly stand-up stories with an inkling of fiddling… but, when he actually got there and realised the measure of the audience, changed it all.

He gave them a bit of a foot-stomping fiddle, then a bizarre story and a couple more musical items.

Well, that doesn’t quite do it justice.

He had had a 20-second chat with Martin Soan before he went on and they ad-libbed what then happened.

Aindrias was interrupted during his second diddly-aye foot-stomping Irish fiddly piece by Martin Soan – totally naked, of course – Riverdancing in from the wings behind him and, trust me, Irish dancing in the nude is a particularly visual entertainment.

There’s a lot of flopping up and down going on.

When this went down very well with the audience, Aindrias called Martin back on stage to do a reprise “bollock dance” to the Jew’s Harp accompanied by a rather dubious song which Aindrias improvised.

Aindrias called what was happening “gyp-hop” – a musical combination of gypsy and hip-hop.

Watching this, Stephen Frost said to me: “If only Malcolm (Hardee) were here to see this.”

Indeed.

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As the climax to a show it is one of the best things I have ever seen on stage, because you can’t expect it.

Juggler Mat Ricardo worries me.

Last night, I went to his 60-minute show Three Balls and a Good Suit because I had seen him perform maybe 15-20 minutes at Pull The Other One in Nunhead just over a week ago and he had said – correctly – that what he would do at the end of his act was physically impossible. It was. And it is. But he did it.

Far be it from me to lapse into cliché, but I could not believe my eyes in Nunhead.

I had never seen anyone else do what he did and I have seen quite a few acts. Mat tells me that, as far as he knows, he is the only person in the world doing it, because he himself figured out how it could be done.

He did it again last night and it is still astonishing. As the climax to a show it is one of the best things I have ever seen on stage, because you don’t expect it. You can’t expect it – it is theoretically impossible.

And the build-up is impeccable because Mat – a sometime street performer – has some great audience-manipulation patter. There is an earlier dagger-juggling section in the show which is a joy to watch just from a structural point of view. Forget the juggling – the verbal patter, the build-up and the control over what the audience thinks it is seeing are a joy in themselves. It is a tribute to his experience.

But he worries me because I try to be aware of good acts and, until just over a week ago, I had never heard of Mat Ricardo. And he is more than just good.

It seems Mat has mostly worked abroad and on cruise ships though originally in street theatre, so I have some excuse, but not much. The full title of his show is Three Balls and a Good Suit: Tales From the Life of a Jaded Novelty Act. I missed it at the Edinburgh Fringe last year and should be ashamed of myself – although it was only on for the first two weeks and, in my opinion, you have to play all four weeks (especially the last two) for three consecutive years to get noticed. But still I am ashamed of myself-ish. I have a high threshold of shame. Fringe Guru not surprisingly gave the show a 5-star review – and that was without the extraordinary new final climax which is so gobsmacking.

Because it was a good show even without the final stunt. Three Balls and a Good Suit also includes one of the best dissections of the street performer’s art I have ever heard and a wonderfully caustic attack on Britain’s Got Talent – it was no news to me but it might be to some that Britain’s Got Talent regularly approaches professional acts and invites them to the auditions (with no waiting in line). No guarantee that they will get chosen, but an assumption that part of their audition will get screened, potentially getting them 2 million hits and upwards on YouTube.

Personally, I have no problem with this but Mat does and I can understand why. Still, in my opinion, 2 million hits on YouTube and a live TV audience of 8 or 10 million is worth a punt. Anyway…

I was interested that Mat said he was partly inspired to become a juggler by old re-runs of W.C.Fields movies on TV – Fields was a great stage juggler before he became a great movie comedian.

And Mat can juggle five balls.

Although I could not do it myself because I am crap at manual co-ordination, I have never been impressed by anyone juggling three balls. As far as I understand it, at any given time, one ball is in or leaving/entering one hand. Another ball is leaving/entering the other hand. So those two balls can be mentally ignored because their trajectory is certain. You only have to concentrate on the one remaining ball in mid-air.

If, you juggle four balls, there are two balls in mid-air at any given time, so to juggle four balls is twice as difficult as juggling three balls.

And if you juggle five balls, there are three balls in mid-air. So juggling five balls is three times as difficult as juggling three balls. It is bloody, bloody, bloody difficult to do.

According to Mat, his idol Enrico Rastelli could juggle ten balls.

My mind can barely comprehend the complications. I find it almost incredible.

But then Mat himself has already done one thing that is impossible.

For 25 years, I have wanted to see a man or woman juggle cooked spaghetti for more than one minute.

Mat Ricardo gives me hope.

(SPAGHETTI-JUGGLING POSTSCRIPT: Steve Ochs tells me that US comic Lenny Schultz, who was in the cast of the revived Laugh In TV show in the early 1980s, “would get club audiences to yell, Go crazy, Lenny! while he did crazy shit. Among his nutty bits, performed after he was stripped down to a Speedo, was, that’s right; cooked spaghetti juggling!”… He couldn’t actually do it, though, so my search continues.)

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I have seen some unexpected acts in my life but I had never seen what I saw last night… I am still shocked.

This morning, I used the Listen Again button on the BBC’s website to hear Boothby Graffoe being interviewed on yesterday’s Radio 2 Arts Show with Claudia Winkleman (it’s 18 minutes in, but is only available online in the UK if you are reading this within seven days of me writing it).

He was on the Radio 2 show to plug his new music album Songs For Dogs, Funerals (the comma really is there – don’t ask) and his UK comedy tour, which starts next Tuesday.

I knew he was the only comedian named after the small Lincolnshire village of Boothby Graffoe but, until he mentioned it on the show, I hadn’t realised this meant he was also named after the second largest site in Europe for testing genetically-modified food. Now there’s a thing.

I listened to the Radio 2 show this morning because I bumped into Boothby last night when I went to Vivienne & Martin Soan’s always extraordinary monthly comedy club Pull The Other One in Nunhead, South London. You know a comedy gig is good when other comedians go to see it even when they’re not on the bill and Boothby just went along to see Pull The Other One before he went back home to Leicestershire.

If I were using glib phrases – which, of course, I wouldn’t dream of writing – I might say it turned into an evening of unexpected revelations.

After the show, I was chatting to Martin Soan and, despite the fact I’ve probably known him since around 1990, I never knew he wrote several sketches for Spitting Image at the height of their TV success.

It was no surprise, of course, that, during the actual Pull The Other One show itself, Bob Slayer enticed a woman from the audience onto the stage and ended carrying her off over his shoulder.

What was unexpected was the climax of Mat Ricardo’s act. He is billed as a juggler, but is more than that and he introduced the final highly-visual thing he did as “impossible”… as indeed it is, but he still did it.

After Mat’s act, there was an interval and one of the other acts – smiling broadly – just looked at me and said: “Jesus!”

Another said to me: “Jesus! I have never seen that done before.”

The Lord was being invoked quite a lot after what we saw. I was and remain so shocked by what he did that I am going to pay to go to see his full live show Three Balls and a Good Suit next week in the hope he does it again.

What he did involves a table and a tablecloth and – no – it is not at all what you think.

There is seldom anything new under the sun – but I have never heard of anyone else doing what I saw and I have certainly never seen it before.

I can’t believe I did see it.

And I have seen a lot of acts.

Jesus!

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Painting a New York fart, Tony Blair and Jo Brand

Yesterday, in response to my blog mentioning farteur Mr Methane, Jackie Hunter, former features editor of The Scotsman newspaper, reminded me that early 20th-century artist Maxfield Parrish painted a fart into a mural that now adorns the famous King Cole Bar in New York’s St Regis hotel. I have to agree with her that painting a fart is quite an achievement.

Yesterday was a funny old mixture of a day because British comedians are now planning for the Edinburgh Fringe in August. Going to the Fringe, like having a baby, is a nine-month project involving a lot of nausea, pain and uncertain results.

Charlie Chuck phoned me about his planned return to Edinburgh which sounds suitably unusual and the extraordinarily multi-talented Janey Godley, not planning to play the Edinburgh Fringe this year but just about to go to the Adelaide Fringe, told me about two possibilities she has been unexpectedly offered in two totally different media. From Janey, the unexpected comes as no surprise.

In the afternoon, I had to take a friend to the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Woolwich which, for reasons I can’t begin to fathom, is surrounded by a high Grade A security fence which makes it look more like a Stalag Luft Queen Elizabeth II escape-proof prison camp in World War II or a Ministry of Defence site in the Cold War.

In the evening, I went to Vivienne & Martin Soan’s monthly Pull The Other One comedy club at the beleaguered and now closed Ivy House pub in Nunhead. The venue was re-opened specially for the night to stage Pull The Other One with this month’s headliner Jo Brand.

Vivienne & Martin now have their next six shows arranged but with no definite venue and are looking round, although they would prefer to stay at the warmly ornate and atmospheric mirrored ‘golden room’ behind the Ivy House bar. One local alternative might be The Old Waiting Room at Peckham Rye Station.

Comedian and novelist Dominic Holland, making his second appearance at Pull The Other One called it “the weirdest gig that exists,” which it surely is. The format is about two hours of variety acts and two stand-up comics. Unusually, nowadays, the bizarre variety acts – far be it from me to name-drop Bob Slayer and Holly Burn – are as important to the feel of the shows as the stand-ups.

Afterwards, Dominic told me that his 14-year-old son Tom Holland, recently on stage as Billy Elliot in the West End, is currently in Thailand filming a lead role in major Hollywood blockbuster The Impossible. I thought Dominic was probably ‘talking up’ this film out of fatherly pride until I looked it up on IMDB Pro and found it is a big-budget tsunami disaster movie “starring Ewan McGregor and Tom Holland” and is one of the “most anticipated films of 2011”.

Other shocks of the evening were that the much talked-about cult comedian Dr Brown has got an entirely new character act in which he actually moves and talks semi-coherently. And I heard that legendary ‘open spot’ act Jimbo – he seems to have been doing open spots as long as Cilla Black has been acting-out the role of ordinary woman next door – is now getting paid gigs, has allegedly changed into a (different) character act and is perhaps going to the Edinburgh Fringe. If he won an award as Best Newcomer at the Fringe it would be very funny and would be a triumph for Brian Damage of Pear Shaped, who has long championed Jimbo and other – even by my standards – very, very bizarre acts.

A very funny night at Pull The Other One ended very entertainingly but totally unsurprisingly with nudity. There were even some calls for The Naked Balloon Dance of fond memory.

Meanwhile, out in the real world, Tunisia continued to stumble around like a blinded meerkat towards potential anarchic chaos and tanks were rolling around Cairo to prevent what threatened to be a popular uprising.

Is it my imagination or have things deteriorated badly in that area since the United Nations, evidently an organisation with no sense of irony, appointed Tony Blair as Middle East Peace Envoy and why is it I never actually see any pictures of him in the Middle East?

Could it be he’s just too busy talking to God and this week, according to The Times, signing a six-figure deal to make four speeches for a hedge fund which made around £100 million by betting on the collapse of the Northern Rock bank in the UK?

This was shortly after the Daily Mail reported that he got £300,000 for making one speech for banking giant Goldman Sachs, while he had a £2.5 million deal as “advisor”  to JP Morgan, who, according to London’s Evening Standard, won a contract to set up an Iraqi bank in the wake of the US-led invasion.

Which gets us back to the subject of Mr Methane and farting around the world and brings up the possibly pertinent question:

What is the difference between being a comedian and taking the piss?

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The intangible nature of reality and the man with the (second?) biggest bollocks in British showbusiness

Yesterday, I drove up to see a friend in Cromer, on the North Norfolk coast.

Looking further north, from the end of Cromer Pier, she told me there is nothing until you reach the North Pole. And even when you get to the North Pole… there is nothing.

Well, there’s something, but you can’t quite put your finger on it.

The ‘facts’ surrounding “godfather of British Alternative Comedy” Malcolm Hardee can be a bit intangible too. The myths are many, various and often surreal. I read the other day that he once kidnapped the singer George Michael, mistaking him for a George Michael lookalike. Where that story came from I have no idea, but Malcolm would have enjoyed it.

On the way back from Cromer, I stopped off at North Walsham in Norfolk, for dinner or supper depending on where you come from. I suppose I could call it a dinner party, except I’m not convinced such things exist except in Islington. But one thing I’m sure of is that also tucking-in was Vivienne Soan, who runs the monthly Pull The Other One comedy club in Nunhead, South London (this month’s show headlining Jo Brand has, not unusually, already sold out).

The subject of Malcolm Hardee inevitably cropped up.

Malcolm was renowned for having the biggest bollocks in British showbusness. Although, strictly speaking, we are not talking here of bollocks but of scrotum. In fact, in later years, in rare moments of quiet contemplation, he would admit to me that he only had the second biggest bollocks in British showbusiness, following what he told me was an embarrassing tabletop contest with Jenny Agutter’s dad. Whether this is true or not I don’t know, but I prefer to think it is.

When Malcolm drowned in Rotherhithe at the end of January 2005, the story which initially circulated was that he had probably fallen out of a small rowing boat into the water late at night while crossing the maybe 8ft of water between his Wibbley Wobbley floating pub and his house boat the Sea Sovereign.

The story was that he died happy, drunk, clutching a bottle of Budweiser and – it was said, depending on which version of the story you heard – he had anything from £50 to £250 in his pocket – winnings from a horse race or a greyhound race that day.

The story about the bottle of beer was confirmed at the Southwark Coroner’s Inquest.

According to PC Martin Spirito, when Malcolm’s body was found in Greenland Dock, “the male had a bottle of beer clenched in his right hand.” Sergeant Roy Dawson, overseeing the dive, said: “The bottle was held in his right hand. It fell from his hand on the ascent.”

The Coroner found Malcolm had not fallen into the dock from a rowing boat, as people had assumed and had told each other, but had fallen from the quayside while trying to board the Sea Sovereign. I once fell into a neighbouring dock myself, while helping Malcolm take a vacuum cleaner on board his boat. (Don’t ask.)

Yesterday, though, Vivienne Soan told me another story about the money in Malcolm’s pocket when he died. She and her husband Martin (who long performed with Malcolm in The Greatest Show on Legs) understood there were no £50-£250 betting winnings in his pocket but there were a very very large number of £1 coins because Malcolm had (not surprisingly, if you knew him) raided his own one-armed bandit machine in the Wibbley Wobbley and put all the coins in his pocket.

The weight of all these coins in his pocket would have weighed him down when he fell into Greenland Dock.

Who knows what is truth and what is myth?

Malcolm’s date of death is usually quoted as 31st January 2005. But, in fact, Southwark Coroner John Sampson said at the Inquest: “He was last seen on the quayside outside the Wibbley Wobbley public house at about 6am on Sunday January 30th.”

He was not reported missing until January 31st – because it was not uncommon for him to disappear occasionally – and his body was not found and recovered until February 2nd 2005.

So his date of death is usually quoted as January 31st 2005.

More probably it was January 30th 2005.

But, as Malcolm would have said:

“Fuck it… It don’t matter, do it? There are people starving in Africa… Not all over… Round the edge – fish.”

I would say R.I.P. Malcolm, except that I suspect he would have hated the thought of resting in peace.

Many will be thinking of him on 30th and/or 31st January.

* * * * *

The Malcolm Hardee Awards for comedy are presented annually in August until the year 2017.

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A glove on the head in Macclesfield, a pantomime horse race and a new sexual perversion

It was a bit of a surreal weekend.

On Saturday night, Vivienne and Martin Soan‘s regular monthly London club Pull The Other One was playing their second irregular show in an interestingly packed Macclesfield Town Hall.

Interesting because it did not strike me as a regular comedy audience. They appeared to be a middle-class, middle-aged, middle-of-the-road audience just out for a good time on a Saturday night. They could have been there for an Agatha Christie play by the local Rep; they could have been there for a Michael McIntyre show. Fair enough.

What surprised me, then, was that they really seemed to appreciate the always very very bizarre, surreal comic, musical and visual talents of Andrew Bailey – who seems never happier than when he has a rubber glove on his head – and the Marmite-odd performances of Holly Burn.

Both are really beyond Alternative comedy; both would have been watched in stunned incomprehension 15 years ago (and Andrew Bailey was); but both were now accepted and appreciated by what seemed to me to be a very mainstream audience. Surprising and somehow reassuring.

But, then, the show had started with full-frontal nudity from Martin Soan with a brown paper bag over his head – so they had a hint up-front it was not going to be a Michael McIntyre show.

This Pull the Other One show in Macclesfield on Saturday night was so odd that when I went to see the first annual Pantomime Horse Race in Greenwich on Sunday afternoon, it seemed a perfectly reasonable and sane event.

Although, in the gents toilet of one Greenwich pub, the normal condom vending machine was joined by another wall-mounted vending machine selling a Viagra substitute, inflatable sheep and inflatable guitars.

Condoms are perfectly normal in a gents toilet vending machine… Viagra is fine… inflatable sheep I can cope with… but inflatable guitars as a sex aid ???? Have I missed a rising perversion ???

All help and advice (preferably with pictures) gratefully received.

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Lewis Schaffer (never call him just Lewis) at some time or other

(This blog originally appeared in What’s On Stage)

Even I’m getting confused, but Lewis Schaffer is an American comic who has lived in Nunhead (Peckham) for ten years and, although he now knows what proper football is, he still can’t spell the English language properly let alone get the time of day correct.

Lewis Schaffer (never call him just Lewis) originally messed-up his Fringe Programme listing because he submitted his Free Until Famous With Lewis Schaffer show as starting at 17.30 when, in fact, it was 7.30 at the Counting House. He claimed he got confused by the Fringe listings being in British military time.

So he was actually performing his show at 7.30 at The Counting House, but he was listed as 5.30.

Then he got some good news and some bad news.

The good news was that a 5.30 slot became available at The Counting House, so he has been performing his show at 5.30 AND at 7.30 daily at the Counting House. The bad news was that the 5.30 slot was only available until last Saturday.

Then – more good news – another 5.30 slot became available immediately at the Blind Poet venue right next door to The Counting House… or so he thought… and he sent out a press release yesterday announcing it. But when he arrived yesterday for the first of these new 5.30 shows – more bad news – he found the room was crowded with punters watching a big screen football match. A big misunderstanding had occurred. The bar lady was not sympathetic. This is not uncommon with Lewis Schaffer (never call him just Lewis).

And an audience had turned up to see him, not the football. Not because they’d read the incorrect billing at the Blind Poet but because they’d read the incorrect billing in the Fringe Programme.

So – more good news – the man Scotsman critic Kate Copstick called “the superstar of free comics” took his audience round the corner to an empty square behind the Pleasance Dome venue and performed his show al fresco with his audience sitting on a wall. He was heckled by a passing skateboarder. Being heckled by a passing skateboarder in the middle of your stage show not common, even at the Fringe.

So, as far as listings go… from now on… at the moment… his one and only show is 1930-2030 daily at The Counting House although he told me last night that he may do more street performances when people turn up – as they will – at 1730.

Who knows what will happen next? I certainly don’t.

Knowing Lewis Schaffer (never call him just Lewis) even slightly is never dull. His life is much like his shows: he has a tendency to make a lot of it up as he goes along and he gets a tad distracted. Me? I am merely a bemused observer.

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