Tag Archives: One Foot in the Grave

Sketchy comedian Will Franken admits: “I am unable to create in moderation”

Will Franken

Will – raising the dead – using sketch comedy

It is that time of year when comedians are preparing their shows for the Edinburgh Fringe in August and are looking for free venues in which to perform previews. One such is the performance area at the back of comedy critic Kate Copstick’s charity shop Mama Biashara in Shepherd’s Bush, London.

Next Friday and Saturday evening, Italian comics Romina Puma and Giacinto Palmieri are previewing early versions of their Edinburgh shows. And the following weekend – on the afternoon of Sunday 8th May, American comic Will Franken is hosting his third 4-hour comedy workshop at Mama Biashara. This one is titled:

RAISING THE DEAD: USING SKETCH COMEDY TO BREATHE LIFE INTO STAND-UP

“Who is this aimed at?” I asked Will.

“Anybody who wants to do something different,” he told me. “And anybody who wants to get to the essence of a sketch quicker. I think people are prone to take a course from me because they’re tired of doing the same things. I think the problem is there is so much regularity in comedy.

“I think a lot of sketches go on far too long. They don’t know a clever way out. They don’t know the Monty Python approach of Don’t beat them over the head with a sledgehammer punchline, just find a nice segue into something else. Brevity!”

“You’re very keen on characters,” I said.

“Love characters,” he replied.

“Hiding behind them?” I asked.

“Yeah, I think so. A couple of years ago, Fest magazine wrote about me: He’s a rare breed of character comedian. He has no love for his characters.

“The trouble is it’s hard for me to love a character long enough to let them live past five minutes. Usually I kill them off after 2 or 3 minutes and I’m onto the next character. It’s a very Monty Python type approach.”

“You’re not interested in sitcoms?” I asked.

“I’m more geared to sketch than sitcom. I think with sitcom you have to have a great love for your characters. I’ve always envied people like David Renwick who created One Foot in The Grave. The love he must have had for Victor Meldrew to be able to carry that through so many series! And Father Ted. They’re great examples of sitcoms. I never liked Monty Python when they had recurring characters.”

Comedy performer and writer Ariane Sherine was sitting with us. She has written for the sitcoms My Family and Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps as well as various children’s shows including The Story of Tracy Beaker. I asked her what she thought.

“I quite like to inhabit a character in a sitcom,” she said, “and see how they develop and change. You can’t really do that with sketch. Though in, say, The Fast Show, they re-visit the same characters. It’s effectively the same sketch each week. It depends what you like – whether you like to feel that you are growing and developing this character and seeing them change or more likely seeing them not learn from their mistakes. Or you like the diversity of being able to have any type of situation in any location and it doesn’t matter about continuity.”

I said: “I never really liked Vic Reeves Big Night Out because they just seemed to be doing the same sketch over and over again.”

“I much prefer,” said Will, “their actual sketch shows like The Smell of Reeves and Mortimer.”

“So you wouldn’t have a recurring or developing character?” I asked.

Alan Bennett in 1973 (Photograph by Allan Warren)

Playwright Alan Bennett photographed in 1973 by Allan Warren

“I do have a character now,” admitted Will, “that I can see possibly going on for a long time. He’s in my Edinburgh Fringe show this year. He’s a Yorkshireman and I’ve been slowly perfecting the accent, listening to Alan Bennett nightly. I’ve just got into Alan Bennett’s stuff. He’s amazing.”

“And your character?” I asked.

“He’s working on a children’s story called Little Jo about a half-pig, half-rabbit who lives in water and, in order to stay alive, he’s gotta spin round and round, spitting out water from both mouths for all eternity.

“That’s the beginning of this year’s show. And then there’s this whole story about how his relatives don’t die and so he murders all of his descendants so they don’t have to live the life that his Nan’s Nan had, who grew up to be 500 years old… Cos that’s no life for a child: to be 500 years old. So I slaughtered all of them and that’s why no-one brings me cake on me birthday… and somewhere sandwiched in the middle of all that is going to be my regular sketch weirdness.”

“Have you done sketch group comedy?” I asked.

“I did once and they said too many of my bits were racist! It was in North Carolina and I had a bit where Whitney Houston has a mental breakdown during a recording of The Greatest Love of All. She’s singing nonsense lyrics: I believe Jeremiah Crenshaw destroyed the world in 1962…

“…and the studio engineer interrupts her to say the lyrics don’t make sense and she says: What the fuck you know, muthafucka? In North Carolina, they said it was too racist, so I could never get my ideas past the group.

“Before that, when I was 16, I had two friends in Missouri and we wrote a little sketch revue for about 20 friends at the coffee shop. But they didn’t want to do it for a living and I did. Sometimes I regret that I don’t have a group. I think it would be nice, but I think I’ve passed that stage now where I could fit into any group.

“It’s like if you’ve been single for a long time, it’s hard to have a wife because you gotta adjust and compromise and I don’t think I’m able to do that.

“You could,” I suggested, “try a sex commune?”

“Possibly. But then I’d get jealous. I have such low self-esteem it’d be like: Whaat? I think free love is very selfish. I’m only into monogamy, unless I don’t like the girl, when I’m into one-night stands. I vacillate between misogyny and monogamy.”

I asked: “You think free love is very selfish?”

“Yeah. I dated a Hare Krishna girl one time and she was seeing somebody else. The guy was away in a hospital, selling his body for medication and medical experiments. I didn’t know this for a whole month… and then he came back. So I associate free love with hippie girls in long broomstick skirts and deceit.”

“You do a podcast, don’t you?” I asked.

“Yeah, I had a very highly successful… I hate to use the word Podcast… I call them Albums. At one point, I had 50,000 listeners. I used to do them pretty regularly and then I started drinking and doing drugs and now I’ve been sober for two years and it’s scarier to put the headphones on and start recording again without the drugs.”

“When did you start doing them?”

“2006. They’re like my live shows: there can be five of me going at once.”

Will Franken

Will Franken randomly approaches podcasts like a symphony

“What’s the podcast called?”

Things We Did Before Reality.”

“So,” I said, “you have been doing this for the last ten years and I have not noticed? How many episodes have I missed?”

“About 25. They’re very insane. I don’t smoke pot any more, but you can put your headphones on, smoke a joint and go off into cuckoo land with it.”

“Is it weekly?”

“God no. When I first started, they were almost every two weeks.”

“And now they’re what? Monthly? Regularly?”

“I approach them like a symphony,” said Will. “The thing is I’m such a perfectionist.”

“Indecision or perfection?” I asked.

“I think it’s perfectionism.”

“So they are released randomly?” I asked.

“Very randomly, yeah.”

“And you’ve just done one?”

“Yeah. This one’s not been published yet but this is my first one in about a year and a half. Maybe within the week it will be published. Before that, I hadn’t done one in more than four years. They’re mostly about 30 minutes long. There’s one called Side Two of Abbey Road where I use all the songs on Side 2 of the Beatles’ Abbey Road album to tell my life story.

“It’s like a one-man sketch thing. You sit with the headphones on all day and you hear playbacks of yourself doing a Yorkshire accent, a Scottish accent, talking to yourself on a train and you really lose your mind by the end of the day. I just woke up this morning chain-smoking and resenting having to go get food. I don’t want a shower, I don’t want to leave the house. The phone rings, I don’t want to answer it. I am unable to create in moderation.”


WILL’S SKETCH COMEDY WORKSHOP IS ORGANISED BY ARLENE GREENHOUSE PROMOTIONS – greenhouse effect@btinternet.com

 

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Comedy without gags but with tragedy

Liam Lonergan: man of comedy

Liam Lonergan: man looking for a good laugh

Last October, I got an e-mail from Liam Lonergan saying:

“I’m currently compiling a portfolio of long-form articles re. stand-up, local theatre, comedy revue and comedy theory as part of my dissertation at the University of Portsmouth. I was wondering if I could borrow some of your time to have a little chat with you? I’m a regular reader of your blog and feel, with your background and obvious enthusiasm for the subject, you would be great to talk to!”

Enthusiasm? Me? About anything except chocolate? Is he mad?

Nonetheless, we had a chat and yesterday he sent me a 13,000 word transcript of what we had talked about. Liam is doing a BA (Hons) course in Creative and Media Writing. Here, with his permission, much shortened and tidied-up to mask my incoherence, is an extract:

________________________

Liam: Are you a fan of… I mean, there’s a current vogue for this… Are you a fan of awkward comedy?

John: No. I think the current vogue for awkwardness is a current vogue for people who aren’t very funny and they’re pretending that it’s post-modern and they’re being anti-comics when in fact it’s because they’re not being bleedin’ funny. The original joke when Alternative Comedy started was people went: “Oh, it’s alternative because you don’t laugh”. Unfair at the time, but a lot of modern supposedly post-modern comedy is pseudo-intellectual people who are not actually very funny.

Liam: Would you say you’re more inclined to the tailored jokes and the gagsmiths rather than the…

John: There aren’t really many stand-up comedians nowadays who tell gags. There’s Jimmy Carr and there’s Milton Jones and there’s Tim Vine. Almost any new comic who is doing gag, gag, gag material is copying one of those people. Most of the comedy today is actually storytelling comedy.

I enjoy those three comedians as gagmeisters but I prefer stories. A lot of comedians worry about getting laughs and I say they shouldn’t worry because ‘interesting’ is as good as ‘funny’ and the epitome of that is my good friend Janey Godley who in her entire life, I swear to god, has never told a funny story or told a gag. She doesn’t tell funny stories. She tells stories funny. And that works just as well.

Liam: Yeah, I follow her on Twitter. She’s Scottish as well, isn’t she?

Janey Godley’s bestselling autobiography

Janey Godley’s 2005 autobiography

John: Yeah, Scottish. I edited her autobiography which is the most horrendous autobiography you’ve ever read in your life. It’s like Edgar Allen Poe. A nightmare from beginning to end. You think the worst has come and then you turn over the page and there’s something even more horrifying. It’s a phenomenally horrific autobiography. And her breakthrough show at the Edinburgh Fringe was the comedy version of that, which was Good Godley.

People who never saw the show thought she must be making fun of serious subjects but she wasn’t. She was basically just telling some of the same stories that were in the book but because of the way she… It’s the Frank Carson line “It’s the way you tell ‘em”… and, with her, she tells the stories in such a way that you can laugh. In her case, it’s laughter as a release of tension. There’s a wonderful clip on YouTube. What she does is, it’s the beginning of her show and she tells the audience: “Don’t get freaked out but, when I was five, I was sexually abused by my uncle. Now I don’t want you to all rush the stage and give me a hug. It’s OK, cos I got him killed for my birthday later on.” And the audience laughs…

Liam: (Laughs)

John: That’s not funny.

Liam: No. No.

John: Which is the point. Because she then says, “No, I did,” and they laugh even more. She then says, “That’s not a joke,” and they laugh even more. Then she says, “Got his cock cut off,” and they all laugh even more. So she tells them with a completely straight face four separate times that something horrendous has happened and it’s not remotely funny but they laugh more and more and more and more.

Liam: Is it because, like, an expectation?

John: It’s very difficult. I haven’t quite got my head round it. What it is is Janey’s brilliant performance skills. It’s partly, possibly, that they don’t believe it. The killing bit. And I wouldn’t say whether it’s true or not. It’s not even a release of tension. I don’t know why they laugh. You FEEL why they laugh because you laugh along with them. But it’s simply the way she tells it. She doesn’t tell funny stories. She tells stories funny. She could read the telephone directory and make people laugh. She’s brilliant. Possibly the best teller of stories I have ever seen.

But she doesn’t tell funny stories. She tells stories funny.

My theory on sitcoms that last the test of time in Britain is that they aren’t comedies. They’re tragedies. So, in America, the best sitcoms are gag, gag, gag, gag written by fifteen people in a room. In Britain the sitcoms which have lasted with the exception of the David Croft ensemble comedies – Dad’s Army, Are You Being Served? all those ones – With the exception of those, all the best sitcoms which have lasted have been tragedies.

Liam: Things like Steptoe and Son, where they’re eternally bound to each other but they want to escape each other.

Steptoe and Son - a tragedy

Steptoe and Son, comedy on screen; tragedy if it were real life

John: Yes. I mean, Steptoe is a tragedy because you’ve got two people who are totally trapped in a situation they can’t get out of. Hancock is fascinating because he’s not a sympathetic character. You wouldn’t want to be trapped in a submarine or a lift with him.

And in One Foot In The Grave the central character is (if he were real) actually not a very nice man and it’s a terrible situation where they’re trapped and he’s frustrated by life and there’s one wonderful episode with the two of them just lying in bed in the dark, talking and nothing else happens. The payoff to that episode is it turns out they had a child earlier in their marriage and the child died. And that’s the climax of the comedy show.

There’s also a one hour Christmas special where the car breaks down and he goes off to find help. He’s on his own, goes into this old people’s home and it basically then turns into a Hammer horror film because of the way they’re mistreating the old people.

Liam: I can relate. I work in an old people’s home as well. The pathos and the sort of joke divide is so clear in places like that.

John: It’s a Hammer horror film. It’s not a comedy at all. Extraordinary. So I think most of the best sitcoms in Britain are tragedies and a lot of the best Edinburgh Fringe comedy shows are things like Janey Godley talking about her mother being murdered or Mike Gunn talking about his former heroin addiction.

So ‘serious’ comedy I like.

Awkward comedy, I think, is usually bullshit. But you can do…

Liam: Uncomfortable?

John: Yes, there’s always Lewis Schaffer, who I can watch and enjoy endlessly.

… CONTINUED HERE

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‘Hated’ comic Alexander Bennett has an interest in serial killers’ lives & the link between comedy and horror punches

Alexander Bennett yesterday in London’s Chinatown

Alexander yesterday in London’s Chinatown

By paragraph 11 of this blog, I stare in open-eyed amazement at comedian Alexander Bennett and say WHAAAAAAAATTT????

Alexander first performed at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2011.

Next Monday in London, he will be performing a version of Alexander Bennett’s Afraid of The Dark, his 2013 Edinburgh Fringe show about a girl called Amy who started to hear voices in her head and then went missing. Alexander found her diary and the show involves him enacting her diary. Except neither Amy nor the diary is real. Alexander made them up.

“You’d be surprised what people think,” Alexander told me at Bar Italia in Soho yesterday.

“What do they think?” I asked.

“That it’s real, despite the fact there are obviously constructed jokes in the diary. At the end of the Edinburgh show, I had people come up to me saying Do you know what happened to her? – Yes I do, I told them. Happily ever after. She’s fictional. She got hit by a truck. There you go. I can change what happened to her.

“Why did you think of doing that show?” I asked.

“Because I’ve been doing comedy for a while and…”

“How long a while?” I asked.

“Well,” replied Alexander, “I’m 21 now and I…”

WHAAAAAAAATTT????” I said, shocked.

Alexander faces up to old age as a young man

Alexander really doesn’t look this young in the flesh

“Yes, I know,” said Alexander. “I look much, much older. When I was 18 and gigging in Manchester, an audience member guessed I was 35 and I was so depressed the gig went downhill from there on. A lot of my life has been women telling me they hate me.

“They come up to me and go Your hair’s great; do you mind if I touch it? – No, go ahead – And you don’t do anything to it? – No, I just wash it – It’s really good quality. I HATE you. That’s one reaction.

“The other one is 30-year-old women who are flirting with me who ask How old are you? When I say 21, they are initially annoyed and then they say You’re going to look like that for the rest of your life and then they are even more annoyed with me.”

“You are annoyingly young,” I said. “So you started performing comedy when you were 18?”

“No,” said Alexander. “When I was 15.”

“So,” I said, “you decided when you were 15 that you wanted to be a comedian?”

“No,” said Alexander. “I was younger than that. I loved cartoons – The Simpsons and Wallace & Gromit and all the Aardman Studios stuff. At first, I thought it was because they were cartoons. But then my dad showed me some Ronnie Barker shows and I realised Ah! The reason I like these shows is because they are funny! Then, from the age of 8 or so, I wanted to be Ronnie Barker. And I was watching John Cleese at around the same time.

Tall, aloof but older-looking John Cleese

Tall, aloof but older-looking John Cleese

“I can identify with John Cleese because I’m not a kind of smiley-happy comedian. I come across more authoritarian than loose. I can identify with Cleese because there’s a similar sort of aloofness. The first thing I ever wrote as a kid of 13 was about trying to bury someone who’s not dead.”

“You were writing at 13?” I asked. “I think I may be starting to hate you.”

“Yes,” said Alexander. “That always happens. When I was 16, I made a feature film that cost about £250 and had a crew of three people. It was a comedy horror called Love: A Mental Illness and it is about a stalker. The girl he’s stalking becomes very upset and he realises the reason she is upset is because all of her friends are horrible. So he goes through the process of getting rid of all these friends who are making her life a misery.”

“You did this aged 16?” I asked.

“Yes, that is why I don’t usually tell people my age,” said Alexander. “Because they will hate me. I am young in a way that irritates people.”

“I think I hate you,” I said. “Also, if you are 21, why aren’t you at university?”

“I am,” said Alexander.

“I think research before you meet people for a chat” I said, “is much over-rated.”

“I’m finishing a degree in film & television production.” explained Alexander, “which is a 90% practical course.”

“And you are particularly interested in….?” I prompted.

“My dissertation was on The British Identity in The Horror Film,” he replied.

“Not a lot of laughs in that,” I said.

“One of the greatest comedy films ever made”?

Rape, ultra-violence and “one of the greatest comedy films ever made”?

Clockwork Orange is one of the greatest comedy films ever made,” said Alexander. “That is 100% true. When I first watched it, I didn’t realise it was a comedy. The second time I watched it, I did. Clockwork Orange is hilarious; there are loads and loads of jokes all the way through it.”

“Well,” I said. “There is some vague connection between comedy and horror and I don’t know what it is. I don’t know if maybe laughter and fear release some of the same chemicals into to the body or something like that.”

“I think a lot of comedy has a horrific element to it,” said Alexander. “They say there’s a fine line between comedy and tragedy. Well, if you push that a little bit further…”

“I do think,” I said, that a lot of the great comedies which have lasted have been set in tragic situations. Hancock…”

“I completely agree,” said Alexander. “Steptoe and Son, Porridge. The idea of being trapped, which is central to all good sitcoms is essential to a lot of horror as well. Steptoe and Son are trapped in a relationship.”

“Yes,” I agreed. “And in One Foot in The Grave they’re trapped. A lot of their situations, if they actually happened, would be horrendous. Good comedy is when things go slightly wrong with reality and..”

“Comedy is a break in reality,” said Alexander, “and horror is kind of the same thing, really. The kind of punch in the stomach that can come with something that’s very tragic is very similar to the punch in the stomach that comes with that Ooohhh! of comedy. The ending of Planes, Trains and Automobiles… It’s a very tragic twist to the end of a comedy film.

“Another thing that horror does which comedy also does is it puts people in pressured spaces. All good horror films have a small group of characters who the film puts pressure on until all the relationships break down. And that is a very good description of any sitcom that works.”

“You like dark comedy…” I suggested.

The Mighty Boosh showing their textures

BBC TV’s Mighty Boosh showing some of their many textures

The League of Gentlemen, I think, is the best sketch show I’ve ever seen. The Mighty Boosh, as a television programme, is fantastic because there are so many textures. And Spaced had a very distinct visual grammar that serves what they’re doing very well.”

“You told me off-microphone,” I said, “that you are interested in serial killers.”

“I run a first-Tuesday-of-the-month comedy club called This Is Not a Cult and the basic structure of the show is I give people new rules to live their lives by. At my January night, I said to the audience: Name any serial killer and I will tell you when they lived and how many people they killed, because I have enough of a working knowledge of that sort of thing to be able to respond. Later on during the same show, I tried to flirt with a girl, having forgotten I’d revealed this aspect of myself. It’s not a great chat-up technique, is it?”

“Any comedy heroes?” I asked.

“My real heroes,” said Alexander, “are Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Stan Laurel and early Woody Allen. They all directed, performed and wrote. Stan Laurel ended up virtually directing all the Laurel & Hardy stuff.”

“So you like auteurs,” I said. “And you’ll have a new show at the Edinburgh Fringe in August?”

“Yes. Alexander Bennett: Follow Me. It’s about the people who are looked-up-to in society and I will prove why I’m better than all of them and convert the audience to my cause.”

“Which is?”

“That I’m brilliant. My stand-up persona is a man who thinks he knows how to run the world. I think my act is more a persona than a character. My life feeds into it and it’s presented in a way that is not necessarily me but is born of me. So it’s a persona not a character. I just take the worst aspects of my personality.”

“Which are?” I asked.

“Ego. I do think I’m brilliant, but I know that’s ridiculous. I do kind of think the world would run so much smoother if everybody would shut up and listen to me. But the guy on stage says things I don’t agree with. It’s a persona.”

There is a clip on YouTube of Alexander performing at the 2013 Chortle Student Comedy Awards.

[blip.tv http://blip.tv/play/AYOP7z0C.x?p=1 width=”720″ height=”433″]

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The funniest British TV sitcoms are actually tragedies and the latest one is neither British nor a sitcom

(This blog later appeared on Chortlethe UK comedy industry website)

Last night, I caught bits-and-pieces of a documentary on the making of the classic and still funny BBC TV series ‘Allo ‘Allo – one of the wonderful ensemble sitcoms produced by David Croft – Are You Being Served?, Dad’s Army, Hi-de-Hi!, It Ain’t Half Hot Mum et al.

One night last year, I sat through an entire evening of BBC3 comedy – four programmes – without a single smile. I think the main problem – especially with sitcoms – is that the writers think the object is to write funny lines for funny characters in inherently comic situations.

But, with the exception of David Croft’s various series, I think the classic British sitcoms are almost all, at heart, tragedies. They are centred on unfunny characters in tragic situations.

From Hancock’s Half Hour through to One Foot in the Grave, the central sitcom characters are not funny people. And the situations are not funny.

The Tony Hancock character is a pompous, insecure, humourless and self-obsessed prat – you wouldn’t want to be stuck in a lift with him. But the series are very funny.

The situation in Steptoe and Son is that both flawed characters are trapped by their suffocating relationship. The (again slightly pompous) son wants to escape to a wider, more exciting world but is trapped by a sad old father terrified of losing his son and being alone.

Till Death Us Do Part featured another suffocating relationship where a racial bigot, bitter at life in a modern world he hates and his long-suffering wife are trapped by poverty with their daughter and loud-mouthed, know-it-all son-in-law in a claustrophobic circle of constant arguments and ego-battles. It’s a near definitive situation of personal hell.

In One Foot in the Grave, a bitter, grumpy old man and his wife are trapped in a childless and almost entirely loveless relationship but have been together so long they have no alternatives left. In one masterful episode, they are in bed in the dark throughout; the camera never leaves the room; it transpires at the end that they once had a child who died – hardly the stuff of cliché, knockabout comedy.

Only Fools and Horses is slightly funnier in its situation and in the way it plays, but still features a rather sad and insecure loser at its heart in what, in reality, would be an unfunny situation.

Even The Office (much over-rated) has an unsympathetic and again very insecure central character you would hate to work for or with.

The American, partly Jewish vaudeville-based tradition of TV sitcoms is to have a high laugh-per-speech count written by large teams of gag writers.

The classic British sitcoms which have lasted the test of time are written by single writers or a pair of writers and, ignoring David Croft’s shows (almost a genre in their own right), they tend to have what would in reality be unsympathetic central characters in tragic situations.

Ironically, the most consistently funny situation comedy currently screening on British television is neither a sitcom nor British. At the time of writing, episodes from three different series of the American show are being screened on three different British channels every week – by ITV1 before lunchtime on Saturdays, by ITV3 on Thursday evenings and it is stripped at breakfast time on Quest.

Monk is, in theory, a US detective/police procedural series about a sad and lonely former detective with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, without friends, unable to function in the everyday world and unable to get over the murder of his wife several years ago. Almost every episode has tear-jerking pathos and almost every episode is more genuinely funny than any number of current British sitcoms where the writers are wrongly attempting to put funny lines in the mouths of inherently funny characters dropped into funny situations.

Although it is clearly NOT a comedy series – it is clearly a detective/mystery/police procedural series – over the years it ran (2002-2009) it won three Emmys and had thirteen other nominations in the Comedy Series category.

If you want to know how to write a sitcom, watch Monk.

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