Tag Archives: odd

I met a man on an Overground train

I remember, maybe a couple of years ago, reading about astronomers who, for decades, had been studying a faraway star system which they believed did not exist. It had, they thought, expanded and exploded millions of years ago, before human beings even existed on Earth. Because of the time light takes to travel, what they were watching was something that, in fact, did not exist.

I was travelling on an Overground train in London yesterday.

Sometimes, on trains, you see shambolic, madly, badly-dressed men or women who, you might think, could be dangerous. Usually, though, they are overly-polite because they are begging for money.

Yesterday, I was sitting in a London Overground train, reading the Metro newspaper. 

A man sat down on the seat opposite me.

He was maybe in his early thirties, dark-haired, blue-eyed, wearing a very neat blue business suit and red tie with a white shirt, his face overly clean-cut, looking like he had just washed and scrubbed and was going to a job interview for a very straight, mainstream office job. Or standing for Parliament.

“It was not my fault,” he said to me.

“Was it not?” I asked.

“No,” he said and paused slightly, then added, “and it was raining. I never liked football at school.”

“No?” I asked.

“No,” he repeated. “It was not my fault.” He paused. “And it was raining.”

“Ah,” I said.

“And I never liked playing football at school,” he said.

I nodded my head and smiled at him. He avoided any eye contact with me.

We travelled four more stations, in silence. 

I carried on reading the Metro newspaper. He looked at the floor, not moving.

Then he got up quickly at the fourth station and left without saying anything.

He went away to live the rest of his life and I continued with mine.

Just a moment in time.

A molecule in infinity.

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Filed under Eccentrics

The sperm whale which exploded today

Beware of exploding 50-ton sperm whales

In enclosed spaces, beware of exploding 50-ton sperm whales

Look, because of the flu, I am all over the place. Normal service will be resumed soon-ish.

In the meantime, this is the 11th anniversary of the day a whale exploded in the middle of the town of Tainan in Taiwan.

For some reason, I identity with this biological incident, though I’m not quite sure if it is the whale or the town I identify with.

The sperm whale, weighing over 50 tons, died on the beach and it took three large cranes and 50 workers more than 13 hours to shift it onto the back of a truck.

According to the local Taiwan News, while the whale was being moved, “a large crowd of more than 600 local Yunlin residents and curiosity seekers, along with vendors selling snack food and hot drinks, braved the cold temperature and chilly wind to watch workmen try to haul away the dead marine leviathan”.

When it exploded, the whale was on the back of the truck, near the centre of the town, splattering blood and whale entrails over surrounding shop fronts, bystanders and cars.

There is a rather strange video on YouTube about the explosion.

I think I identify with the whale, though having had flu is obviously somewhat different, even with the addition of a late laxative for constipation.

Apparently the explosion of dead sperm whales is not unusual. It is the buildup of gas inside the decomposing body which causes them to explode.

That much I understand.

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Filed under Animals, Eccentrics, Humor, Humour, Japan

Odd UK comic acts: teddy bear torture and the man who ate his own brain

Comic investigator Liam Lonergan

Comic academic Liam Lonergan

Starting last week, I have posted three extracts from a chat I had with Liam Lonergan for his BA (Hons) course in Creative and Media Writing at the University of Portsmouth.

This is final extract:

__________

John: In the 1980s you went to alternative comedy shows and got a stand-up bloke talking about Margaret Thatcher. You got a juggler. You got a man who came on and read awful poetry. And you got a man who came and set fire to his hair or something. Lots of variety.

Whereas now if you go to a comedy club it’s stand-up followed by stand-up followed by stand-up followed by a bigger stand-up.

Liam: Variety is sort of dead, isn’t it?

John: Yeah. So you’ve got, like, five people all basically doing the same thing and there actually isn’t any variety on the bill, whereas the original alternative comedy actually had variety. The last two years at the Edinburgh Fringe I thought the funniest acts were mostly listed in the Cabaret section.

The last two years – possibly three years – there’s been a Cabaret section separate from the Comedy section and I’ve seen quite a lot of the shows and a lot of the funnier shows have actually been the cabaret section shows and not the comedy section. In the Comedy section they’re either doing straight stand-up or they’re doing quite good storytelling or they’re doing “I’m a student being wild and wacky”. God help us! If you ever see the word ‘wacky’ or ‘zany’ in a listing, avoid it like the plague.

Liam: That’s it. Toxic.

John: Whereas, in the Cabaret section, just weird things are going on. And very, very funny.

Liam: I didn’t know whether, within the dissertation articles I’m doing, to incorporate comedy revue and local theatre as well because there’s lots of that going on…

John: Small comedy clubs are closing and people are getting less interested in new comedy. You can see the big comedians with guaranteed quality in a big venue like the O2.

So why should you go to a small comedy club with acts you’ve never heard of? Acts who may be good but you’ve never heard of them so it’s a matter of luck. And, if you go to a comedy club, you’re going to get five or six people doing the same thing: stand-up. Whereas in the 1980s and early 1990s you got variety so you’d no idea what you were going to see. I mean, you would get Chris Lynam coming on and sticking a firework between his buttocks and they’d play No Business Like Showbusiness. Now THAT is entertainment.

There used to be an act who just came on and tortured teddy bears. There was a wheel of pain and the teddy bear got strapped to the wheel of pain and got tortured. Someone told me the guy is now a social worker in Tower Hamlets.

That’s what we want. That’s entertainment. Have you seen Hannibal? The sequel to The Silence of the Lambs?

Liam: The sequel to the film? Yes. Yes I have.

John: He eats someone else’s brain while the guy is still alive.

Liam: Oh, yeah.

John: There used to be a variety act in the 1980s or 1990s – someone told me he was a psychiatrist, I don’t know if he was – and he used to go round the comedy clubs with an act and the act was that he wore a fez and he had a spoon and he used to eat his own brain. He put the spoon inside the top of the fez and brought out grey stuff which he ate. And, as he ate different parts of his brain, different parts of his ability to communicate and to function disappeared. So he’d eat one part of his brain and he’d keep talking to the audience all the way through, then he starts twitching. So then he eats another bit and his speech starts to slur or the words get mixed up. It was simultaneously funny and very unsettling and scary because it like a flash forward to your own senility. You don’t get many of those type of acts anymore.

Liam: It’s a shame that’s dead because that’s the kind of stuff I’d… the audience reaction to that would be so mixed. It would be so…

John: You couldn’t altogether say it was funny but it was unsettling all the way through. It certainly wasn’t straight stand-up.

Liam: But that’s what I love. That’s what I…

John: Last year I sat through an entire evening of BBC3 comedy. There were four shows in a row. Not a titter. And I was sitting there thinking These people are sitting there trying to write a series of funny gag lines and that’s not really…

Liam: I think weird stuff can tap into humanity and the visceral reactions a lot more than the clever stuff.

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Filed under Comedy, UK

Is it still illegal to celebrate Christmas in England? + Eating sloths in Guatemala

Phoenix, Arizona, the perfect place to fry an egg

Phoenix, Arizona: a perfect place to fry an egg on the sidewalk

Yesterday I had lunch with someone who has just come back from Phoenix, Arizona.

“I read a while ago that it was the fastest-growing city in the US,” I told her, “but that it is a hell-hole and you can’t go outside comfortably because of the heat.”

“It was very hot,” she agreed. “They have a new law on the statute books which makes it illegal to fry eggs on the sidewalk any more.”

She swore this was true.

What fascinated me was the phrase “any more” and the fact that such a law might be necessary: that it had become so prevalent it was a problem.

In the 1980s, as far as I am aware, it was still illegal under the law of England and Wales for young adult males NOT to practice archery every Sunday (presumably in case the French invaded or the English monarch decided to invade France)… and it was illegal to celebrate Christmas (under an un-repealed Cromwellian law). As far as I know, it still is.

The mis-named English justice system is constantly fascinating.

Last week, I read in the London edition of Metro newspaper that Westminster Magistrates’ Court had given a 20-year-old man a £745 fine and imposed a curfew on him because he had been staying in a hotel and had “emerged from a cupboard naked, with a fire hose up his bottom”.

A fire hose with (it says here) a Finnish coupler

Fire hose with (it says here) a Finnish coupler

The 20-year-old man was said by his lawyer to be “truly ashamed of himself”. This sounds unlikely. He will presumably be bought free drinks by his friends for the next ten years.

The Metro report did not specify the exact law under which the man had been prosecuted. Can there really be a specific law prohibiting people being naked with a fire hose up their bottom?

Life is a constant mystery.

But one mystery has been cleared up.

Yesterday, I wrote that this blog’s occasional Canadian correspondent Anna Smith had told me that her sister’s visit to Guatemala had resulted in three children and her (the sister) becoming an Anglican priest.

I wanted – I think not unreasonably – to know more details.

These have been forthcoming.

Anna tells me:

“Twenty five years ago, my sister met a cute Guatemalan refugee at Saigon Palace – a Vietnamese restaurant on Spadina Avenue in Toronto. They married and soon had three children. My Guatemalan in-laws were very happy when they found out I had been involved with British comedy – In particular, they were desperate to know if I had met ‘Benny Eel’.

“My new Guatemalan extended family also enjoyed visiting the Natural History Museum in Toronto. When we walked past the taxidermied displays of jungle animals, they said: Yummy Yummy… Remember when we ate that anteater in Rio Bravo?  and  Look – a sloth! Remember when Auntie cooked us some sloth stew?…

A sloth - highly regarded in Guatemala

A sloth – they are highly regarded by gourmets in Guatemala

“Then suddenly (well, after eight years at the UBC Theology School), my sister became an Anglican priest.

“She moved to a village high in the Guatemalan mountains. After years of being shot at during anti-mining demonstrations, she decided to return to Canada and has been installed in a church in New Westminster, close to where the recent Godzilla movie was filmed. She has recently completed a book about the evils of the Canadian mining industry in Guatemala and sat as a judge in some genocide trials.”

“Good heavens!” I said. “Genocide trials in Canada?”

“In Mexico City, I think,” replied Anna.”I will have to ask… She was a witness of a lot of exhumed bodies…”

Some answers just create more questions.

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Filed under Humor, Humour, Legal system

Sketch comedy with a weird touch of Roald Dahl living in the Twilight Zone

James Hamilton halfway between the darkness and the light?

The sketch comedy group Casual Violence are staging a ‘best of’ show at the Leicester Square Theatre in November with the title Om Nom Nominous – which is a little odd but then they are a little odd. Especially writer, producer and co-director James Hamilton.

Or not.

Well, OK, he is not weird. But his writing is, which is why he has been nominated the last two years for the Malcolm Hardee Award for Comic Originality.

Last year, Casual Violence’s Edinburgh Fringe show was called Choose Death. Not an obvious title for a comedy sketch show. This year’s title was A Kick in the Teeth – the title crops up within the show itself as “All life has to offer is just another kick in the teeth.” Both shows felt like comedy set in The Twilight Zone.

“I thought the show was absolutely brilliant,” I told James Hamilton after seeing A Kick in the Teeth.”

“Oh, thank you,” he said.

“But I had absolutely no idea what the fuck was going on,” I added. “Just like last year.”

“It is a weirder show than last year,” laughed James.

“It is very difficult to describe your shows,” I said. “I tell people to go see them, then they ask me What’s the show like? and I can’t come up with any description which does it justice.”

“We always really struggle trying to come up with a sales pitch to define what the show is,” said James. “Last year was easier. You could say: There’s a serial killer with no arms and there are hit men who are Siamese twins. If you say those sort of things, people laugh. The characters in this year’s show are not as easy to describe in a funny way.”

“The Poppy Man, who you play yourself in A Kick in the Teeth, is very difficult to describe,” I said.

“Not easy to describe in a good way,” agreed James.

The character, who pops up throughout the show, is a strangely evil, threatening seller of Remembrance Day poppies.

“So…?” I prompted.

“The Poppy Man,” suggested James, “is one man’s guilt nightmare for not wearing a Remembrance Day poppy. It’s like a Roald Dahl short story… In fact, I guess the Roald Dahl comparison is probably relevant… In October or November last year, I re-read his Tales of the Unexpected which I hadn’t read since I was a child. I remember reading the stories as a child and that’s where I learnt what taxidermy is… in The Landlady.

“That’s the one where a guy goes to stay in a bed and breakfast and the landlady has had two guests previously and she taxidermied them; you never see them, but it’s implied. It didn’t have a conscious influence on last year’s show, but maybe there was an influence.”

“So maybe you were a psychotic, evil bastard as a kid?” I suggested.

“No!” laughed James. “No I wasn’t! This is the thing. People keep saying to me that they don’t really get why I do the comedy that I do, given that I… One of my best friends said You’re one of the straightest people I know and yet the stuff you come out with is really weird.

“Have your parents got any showbizzy genes?” I asked.

“No,” said James immediately, “Not at all. My dad is an antique silver dealer, which is much less interesting than it sounds.”

“Not in that bizarre vault place?” I asked vaguely.

“Yes! Yes!” said James. “The London Silver Vaults. Yes.”

“I went there for the first time a couple of months ago,” I said, “How weird.”

“Am I going to end up plugging my dad’s business?” James asked.

“Yes,” I said.

“Vault 25,” said James.

“He must be white-skinned with large eyes and long white hair,” I said. “Like the Morlocks in The Time Machine. A strange subterranean creature.”

“It’s a really, really weird place,” agreed James. “It looks like a Victorian mental asylum.”

“If you were brought up going down there regularly as a kid,” I said, “it would screw your mind up. You would end up like some evil hobbit.”

“Most people’s shops down there,” said James, “are very layed-out and ornate and glass cabinets. But you walk into my dad’s shop and it’s like a junkyard which I think some people find quite exciting, because it’s like it’s full of mysterious treasures but you’ve got to find them. It’s a challenge.”

“I have a strange feeling I might have gone in there,” I said. “There was a really cluttered one I went into and I had a long chat with the guy in there. He looked normal, though, and he was interesting to talk to. What does your mother do?”

“At the moment,” James said, “she’s doing a bit of antique stuff herself, but really different – antique fairs and that sort of thing. There’s a big antiques interest in the family, but not with me. My mother’s dad also worked in the Silver Vaults.”

“Your siblings?”

“I have a sister who is just a year younger than me and has recently fallen to the antiques trade. My other sister is 14 and wants to be a psychologist. She’s the smart one.”

“You’ve done three shows now,” I said. “Choose Death, A Kick in the Teeth and before that…?”

“The first one was a different format. It was more like a play. A badly-written play. Kate Copstick gave it a one-star review and called it ‘irritating’. Obviously, I feel her review was too harsh, but I also feel the good reviews we got for it were too generous. There are so many things I don’t like about it as a show and it’s the one we don’t talk about.”

“And how do you describe A Kick in the Teeth?” I asked.

“Oh,” said James. “If you like laughing at the misery of other people, you’ll like this. You could describe it as schadenfreude sketch comedy, but that’s not an easy one to lead with. There’s no easy term to describe it.  We had Tales of TragiComedy Sketch Terror on the flyer in Edinburgh, but that’s a bit of a mouthful.”

“What’s the attraction of weirdness?” I asked.

“I don’t think I’m weird!” pleaded James. “I sort of know my stuff is maybe weird, but it doesn’t feel weird to me.”

“Are you afraid that, if you analyse it too much you won’t be able to do it?”

“Maybe,” James said. “At one point, the show was going to be about War; that was going to be the theme. I wrote a full script and it didn’t work, so I chucked 80% of it. The Poppy Man was the only character who stayed. That and the idea of a Battleships game-to-the-death.

“Around Remembrance Day last year, everyone was wearing a poppy and I was joking with my then-girlfriend Remember, remember the 11th of November and just riffing on it and saying there was a lot to remember, because my dad’s birthday’s in November, we had a gig the next week, there’s Remembrance Day, there’s fireworks day…

“Some of the stuff I’ve done before has been much darker and my then-girlfriend was never the kind of person to take offence at it but, for some reason, the Poppy Man thing really touched a nerve with her. I don’t know why, but I found it funny she was reacting in that way. I don’t ever want to do comedy that I couldn’t argue was not offensive.”

“Was not offensive?” I asked.

“I don’t actually want to offend people,” explained James. “If people are offended – fine. It can happen. But I’m not setting out to do that. People could be offended by the Poppy Man, but I don’t feel it is offensive.”

“You must have had interest from TV after the 5-star reviews last year and this year?” I asked.

“Not really, no, “ said James. “I think part of the reason for that is we don’t have PR, we don’t have an agent. It’s basically just myself and another producer trying to make stuff happen and it’s very difficult.”

“Weird,” I said.

“Maybe,” said James.

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Several true inter-linked coincidences in Edinburgh, unbelievable if in a novel

Something fishy happening here?.. Just coincidence.

Normally the drive from London to Edinburgh takes me around seven to eight hours. Yesterday, we left at midday and it took me eleven hours – after two hold-ups caused by visible car crashes and five other very serious traffic jams. Eventually at Biggar, about 26 miles from Edinburgh via an up-and-down, windy road, we hit fog, which lasted all the way into Edinburgh. The only upside was that Edinburgh shapes look rather nice in foggy outline.

When we got to our rented place at the bottom of Morningside hill – the exact house address is 5a – there was no key waiting but, having sorted that out, we drove off at about 11.30pm in search of a pint of milk.

What I am saying here is that the exact timing of what happened was pure happenstance.

On the way to what I thought might be a 24-hour shop on Nicholson Street (it turned out it is only 24-hours during the Edinburgh Fringe), having changed the route I intended to take, my eternally-unnamed friend said excitedly: “There’s a fish and chip shop open over there!”

It was called The Codfather with a sub-title: Criminally Good Fish and Chips and proclaimed it was “100% Halal”.

Obviously, I could not resist.

While waiting for the fish, I saw a card for the shop lying on the counter. It said the street address of The Codfather is 5a. What a coincidence, I thought. We are staying at a 5a in Morningside.

Next to the Codfather card was a similarly-designed card for Assam’s restaurant in another part of Edinburgh, at the top of Leith Walk. On the back of the card for Assam’s in Edinburgh, were details of Assam’s in Glasgow.

In March, I blogged about going to a Burns Night Supper in Kiev (despite the fact Burns Night is in January). During that night in Kiev, I encountered a man who said he owned a new Edinburgh restaurant called Assam’s at the top of Leith Walk; he also owned a similarly-named restaurant in Glasgow.

I am up in Edinburgh for a meal tonight with Stuart McKenzie, the Scotsman who organised that Burns Night Supper in Kiev and who is Managing Director of the largest PR agency in the Ukraine. He is flying over for the meal. Last week, he decided to hold the meal in Assam’s at the top of Leith Walk.

“Oh,” I said to the man at the counter of The Codfather in Edinburgh last night. “Are you somehow related to Assam’s? I’m having dinner there tomorrow night.”

“Tell him,” the guy said, pointing to a man standing at the other end of the counter. “He’s the manager of Assam’s.”

“I’m having dinner there tomorrow night,” I repeated to the other guy.

“You have booked?” he asked me.

I nodded.

“Do you know a man called Stuart?” he asked.

“Stuart McKenzie?” I asked.

“Yes,” said the man at the other end of the counter.

“Amazing,” I said to the manager of Assam’s. “I didn’t meet you a Burn’s Night Supper in Kiev in March, did I?”

“No,” the owner of The Codfather interrupted, “that would have been my younger brother. He owns Assam’s. Was he with another guy, skinhead look?”

“Ah!” I said. “Yes. I remember. He was.”

“That’s his friend who owns some Subway food shop franchises,” the owner of The Codfather said.

And, indeed, I remembered having a conversation about that very subject with the guy in Kiev.

So, driving in the fog in Edinburgh, on a whim, to a non-existent 24-hour shop, we had stumbled on a fish and chip shop owned by the brother of the man whom I had a conversation with in Kiev in March – who, in turn, owns the restaurant in which, tonight, I am having a meal with Stuart McKenzie who has flown in from Kiev… and the manager of the restaurant was standing at the other end of the Codfather counter last night.

“If you have any complaints tomorrow…” the owner of the Codfather said to me.

“Yes?” I asked.

“That,” he said, pointing through the window, “is the chef at Assam’s.”

I looked.

A man standing on the pavement was staring in through the window at me. He looked surprised.

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Filed under Coincidence, Surreal

Yesterday a man stood in Leicester Square with a placard saying he had absolutely no message for the world

This man has no important message for you

(This was also published in the Huffington Post)

Yesterday, I was rushing to a meeting at 6.30pm just off Leicester Square, in London.

At 6.18pm (that exact time is on the sound recording on my iPhone) I saw a man standing in the North East corner of Leicester Square with a placard saying:

I HAVE NO MESSAGE. AND I’M NOT SELLING ANYTHING. I JUST HAVEN’T GOT ANYTHING BETTER TO DO.

So, obviously, I went up to him.

“You’re a performance artist?” I asked.

“No.”

“An actor?”

“No.”

“So” I asked, “Why?”

“Why?” he asked me in reply. “Why not? It’s something to do. I haven’t got anything better to do. It’s on the placard.”

“So what did you do,” I asked him, “before you didn’t do anything?”

“That’s a bit of a mind-turning thing,” he replied. “It’s been like this for years. I haven’t had anything better to do than this for years.”

“Did you go to college?” I asked.

“I did, but that was years ago.”

“What was the subject?” I asked.

“History and politics,” he replied.

“Ah!” I laughed. “So, you’re a failed politician?”

“Failed.” he said. “Completely failed to be a politician.”

“You could get yourself exhibited at the Tate,” I suggested.

“Do you think so?” he asked.

“Yeah,” I said. “Like a Damien Hirst thing.”

“It’s an idea,” he agreed. “In the Tate? Just stand on the steps at the Tate?”

“Yeah,” I told him, realising he was thinking of the old Tate building. “In fact,” I said, “you should stand at the main entrance to Tate Modern – at the slope – and you might get a commission. You might get a commission to stand there for weeks on end.”

“Brilliant,” he said with little enthusiasm.

“Leicester Square is the wrong place for you,” I suggested. “This is the home of showbiz and Hollywood. But, if you go to Tate Modern, that’s the home of people who give lots of money for nothing. That’s your ideal market.”

“So that would be my attempt to advertise myself?” he asked.

“Is that too commercial?” I asked.

“No,” he said. “I dunno. I probably need a seat or something. Do you think they’d give me a seat?”

“No,” I said, “you’re better to stand.”

“But it’s going to get knackering after standing for too long,” he said.

“But,” I explained, “if you’ve got a seat, it smacks of lack of cutting-edgeness.”

“You think so?” he asked me.

“I think so,” I told him.

“Basically, you’ve got the wrong market here,” I told him.

“You think so?” he asked.

“I think so,” I told him, “There was a story that Damien Hirst was on his way to see some people who wanted to commission him to create a work of art and he accidentally stood in some dog shit on the pavement outside the building and he went in and put the shoe with dog shit on it on the table and they were very impressed.”

“If there’s some dog shit, I could step in it,” he said trying, I think, to be helpful.

Message from the messenger with no message

“Nah,” I said. “That’s been done. This is original – what you’re doing here is very original and admirably meaningless. The important thing is it’s totally and utterly meaningless.”

“Of course it is,” he agreed. “Because that’s life for you. Life is totally and utterly meaningless.”

“How did you get the idea?” I asked.

“It just came to me one day,” he said, brightening up slightly. “It just came to me. I thought Why not? Why not do something completely pointless and meaningless?”

“How long ago was that?” I asked.

“About four years ago, I think,” he said, his enthusiasm dimming. “I’ve been doing this for four years.”

“Oh!” I said, surprised, “I’ve never seen you before…”

“I stopped doing it for years,” he explained. “I started four years ago, but then I didn’t bother for about two or three years.”

“Why?” I asked. “To create a demand?”

“No,” he explained. “I just stopped because I couldn’t be bothered.”

“Why not have a hat on the ground to collect money?” I asked. “Would that undermine the idea?”

“No,” he said. “I just haven’t got round to doing it.”

“What’s your name?” I asked.

“Phil.”

“Phil what?”

“Phil Klein.”

“Where are you from?” I asked.

“London.”

“And you live in London?”

“I live in London.”

“Can we take a picture?” four passing girls asked Phil.

“Yeah,” he said, without much interest.

“You have a market here,” I told him. “You should be charging for this.”

The girls took their pictures.

“It spreads the word,” said Phil. “It spreads the word.”

“What word?” I asked.

“I dunno,” Phil replied. “There is no word. But it’s spreading whatever is there to be spread in its own kind of way. So this is like… yeah…”

“Where do you live?” I asked. “What area?”

Hampstead,” Phil told me.

“Oh my God!” I laughed. “You’ve got too much money!”

“Not me,” Phil said. “My parents.”

“There’s Art somewhere here,” I mused. “Performance Art. What do your parents do? Are they something to do with Art?… Or maybe psychiatry?”

“They just earn money,” Phil said. “Doing stuff. Well, my dad earns money doing stuff.”

“How old are you?” I asked.

“Erm… Thirty… nine,” Phil replied.

“You sure?” I asked.

“Yeah.”

“You were a bit uncertain,” I said.

“No,” said Phil, “I just felt… It was a bit of a question… thirty nine.”

“You must have done something,” I suggested. “In an office or something?”

“No,” he told me, “I’ve literally done nothing in my life. This is as exciting as it gets for me. This is as exciting a journey, an adventure as…”

A passing girl took a photograph of the large question mark on the back of Phil’s placard.

Seeing the back of the man in Leicester Square

“Thankyou,” she said.

“It works quite well,” he told me. “You see, I have a question mark on the back and a statement on the front.”

“It might be a bit too multi-media,” I suggested.

“You think so?” asked Phil. “Too…”

“Too pro-active, perhaps,” I said.

“You think it’s too active?” asked Phil.

“You need to be more passive,” I said.

“Right,” said Phil.

“Ooh!” I said looking at my watch. “I have to be in a meeting in two minutes!”

“You’ve got to go in two minutes,” Phil told me, with no intonation in his voice.

“Let’s hope the iPhone recorded that,” I said. “If it didn’t, I’ll be back again! Are you here at the same time tomorrow?”

“I could be,” said Phil.

When I came out of my meeting an hour later, Leicester Square was more crowded and Phil and his placard had gone, like a single wave in the sea.

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Filed under Art, Comedy, Eccentrics, Humor, Humour, Performance, Surreal, Theatre

In praise of the Daily Telegraph and Pear Shaped Comedy Club’s quirkiness

To start at the end of this blog and to reply to your reaction…

Look.

It’s my blog. I am allowed to witter.

So, for fans of Tristram Shandy

Brian Damage and Krysstal’s weekly Pear Shaped comedy club has been running in London’s West End for eleven years. Brian and Krysstal promote it as “the second worst comedy club in London”. I prefer to call Pear Shaped the Daily Telegraph of British open spot comedy clubs.

Let me explain.

When I blogged about last weekend’s six-hour event celebrating the anarchic life of Ian Hinchliffe, I did not mention that I told ex-ICA Director of Live Arts Lois Keidan about my admiration for Bernard Manning as a comic, Margaret Thatcher as a Parliamentary debater and the Daily Telegraph as a newspaper. I do not think she was impressed with this triple whammy.

But – in addition to my love of quirky Daily Telegraph obituaries in their golden era under Hugh Massingberd and their sadly now-dropped legendary Page Three oddities – I think the Daily Telegraph is the only actual national NEWSpaper left. All the others are, in effect, magazines with ‘think’ pieces and additional background to yesterday’s TV news.

But the Daily Telegraph prints a high quantity of short news reports and (outside of election times) maintains an old-fashioned Fleet Street demarcation between News and Comment. The news reporting is, mostly, unbiased straight reportage; the comment is what non-Telegraph readers might expect.

They have also consistently displayed an admiration for rebels.

The Daily Telegraph – perhaps moreso the Sunday Telegraph – always showed an interest in and admiration for comedian Malcolm Hardee. They loved quirky MP Alan Clark, though they disapproved of his sexual amorality. The Daily Telegraph even surprisingly championed early Eminem. When the red-top tabloids were claiming his music and his act were the end of Western Civilization, the Daily Telegraph reviewed his first UK tour as being in the great tradition of British pantomime.

I once met a Daily Telegraph sub-editor at a party who hated working at the paper for exactly the same reason I loved reading it. People would yell across the room at him: “Give me a three-inch story!” not caring what the actual story was.

So the Daily Telegraph ended up with an amazing quantity of news stories, often not fully explained because they had been cut short.

I remember reading on a classic Page Three of the old Daily Telegraph, a brief court report about a man accused of scaring lady horse-riders by leaping out of hedges in country lanes dressed in a full frogman’s outfit, including flippers, goggles and breathing tube. That was, pretty much, the whole news item. If ever a story needed more background printed, this was it.

The Pear Shaped Comedy club is a bit like the Daily Telegraph in that it is an extraordinary hodge-podge of fascinating items apparently thrown together randomly but somehow holding together as a recognisable whole with its own personality. Quirky, eccentric and barely under control. Last night, in addition to the consistently good and massively under-praised Brian Damage & Krysstal themselves, the show included increasingly-highly-thought-of Stephen Carlin, rising new comics Laurence Tuck and Phillip Wragg and very new but intriguing Samantha Hannah.

And then there was long-time comic, club owner, compere, comedy craftsman and humour guru Ivor Dembina. He had come down to try out some new material as he is performing in four shows at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe, including the fascinatingly unformatted Ivor’s Other Show. He told me:

“I might just invite on people I’ve met in the street. Anything that takes my fancy.” Then he added, “Do you want to come on it one afternoon, John? Can you do anything?”

“No,” Pear Shaped co-owner Vicky de Lacey correctly interrupted, “he can write but he can’t actually do anything.”

But that never stopped Little and Large, so I may yet appear on Ivor’s Other Show, perhaps as a human statue. There is, inevitably, a ‘living statue’ resource page on the internet.

We live in wonderful times.

I refer you to the start of this blog.

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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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