Tag Archives: Paul Provenza

The filthiest joke in the world…

Kate Copstick and John fleming - Grouchy Club Podcast

The Grouchy Club Podcast – I am incapable of telling a joke

In this week’s 27-minute Grouchy Club Podcast, comedy critic Kate Copstick and I talk about performer Matt Roper and Wilfredo being robbed in New York… Chris Dangerfield & Ricky Grover… Lewis Schaffer & Bobby Davro… How I am currently locked inside my own house… Copstick’s involvement in actual bodily harm… Taboo comedy, shaggy dog stories & bad taste jokes… And the old adage that tragedy + time = comedy. But the filthiest joke in the world also came up in conversation.

This piece is also a classic example of how I am incapable of telling a joke effectively. Because I have a shit memory. I may have mentioned that before.


COPSTICK
…It’s like when the marvellous Paul Provenza made a documentary film called The Aristocrats.

JOHN
…about the filthiest joke ever.

COPSTICK
Well, I kept hearing about this film The Aristocrats and ‘It’s brilliant!’ and I thought: What would it be about? About posh people in comedy? Comedy about posh people? And then they did a special showing of it at the Edinburgh festival and, the minute they started, I went: Oh! It’s The Debonaires! Because, in Scotland, the joke is The Debonaires.

I think, in the UK, tagging it with The Aristocrats is just not funny, because it’s got this fantastic… Well, you tell it…

JOHN
We’re not going to tell it. The whole point about this joke is it has to last as long as possible. You can probably see it online.

COPSTICK
Yeah. Some people do it with more actions, some people do it with more swearing, some people make it last longer than others. I first heard it about a hundred years ago in Scotland done in broad Glaswegian and then when you get… Oh, so, eh, what’s it called? – Well, we call it The Debonaires!…

JOHN
… because the whole point about the joke is you have to be as filthy as possible and then, at the very end, the supposed punchline is actually an up-market, clean, sweet name. I heard the reverse of this joke at Granada TV, Manchester in – God knows – it must have been the late 1970s, early 1980s, but it was the reverse.

COPSTICK
The reverse?

JOHN
It was called Porky. It wasn’t a showbiz joke; it was a joke about a family. There was this sweet boy who was the son and you had to do sweetness and light and love and bluebirds flying and everything glorious for as long as possible and then, at the very end, the person in the joke says: What’s his name? and the answer is Porky… No… You say that at the beginning of the joke… His name is Porky and then there’s all sweetness and light…

COPSTICK
This is not going well, John, as jokes go.

JOHN
I can’t tell jokes… His name’s Porky…

COPSTICK
So we establish at the beginning of the joke that the boy’s name is Porky…

JOHN
… and, for as long as possible, you do everything sweet and light and beautiful and lovely and, at the end, the person in the joke says: And why is he called Porky? And the answer is: He fucks pigs. So you have beauty and then…

COPSTICK
Right.

JOHN
…and then there was a reverse of that and I can’t remember what the reverse was. It was similar to The Debonaires, where you have to do filth and then it’s a clean ending. And it actually wasn’t as funny as Porky, because the whole point about the joke is the skill in the telling of it. It’s not actually the joke. The joke is not funny. It’s the telling of it.

It’s quite easy to make it interesting if it’s all four-letter words and filth. It’s really difficult to make it last and last and last if it’s sweetness and light and prettiness. So there’s actually more skill in the reverse one where the punchline is He fucks pigs, but everything else before that is Sally Sunshine.

There was a bloke at Granada (Graeme Wells) who could tell it brilliantly. People just lined up to hear him tell the story.


This week’s full 27-minute Grouchy Club Podcast is HERE.

And there is a trailer for the very highly-recommended Aristocrats movie on YouTube.

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Comedy audiences “haven’t had a good night out unless they’ve thrown-up a few times and punched their girlfriend”

(This was also published by the Indian news site WSN)

NealeWelch_16feb2013

Neale Welch at the Comedy Cafe sound desk on Saturday

I was at London’s Comedy Cafe Theatre at the weekend, talking to outspoken owner Noel Faulkner and his business sidekick Neale Welch who, with a marketing background, perhaps promotes the club in less controversial style.

“Why is the Comedy Cafe moving to single-artist shows after August?” I asked Neale.

“Partly,” Neale explained, “because of a decline in the demand for mixed-bill shows – an MC and three acts. Plus increased competition. And it’s costing us more in marketing to get the same amount of people in for those shows. It costs more to get people in than it did previously.

Say goodbye to the logo

Say goodbye to the old Comedy Cafe  logo

“We’re also re-designing our logo, moving it from the smiley face of the 1990s and refurbishing the room again – we only did it 18 months ago… Lots of little tweaks to make a big over-all change.”

“Are comedy club audiences really declining?” I asked.

“If you look on Google Trends,” Neale told me, “at the graph of Google searches for comedy… live… stand-up between 2004 and 2012 it declines steadily. If you look at live… comedy… London it shows the same decline. So there’s less people searching for live stand-up comedy and, if that’s going down then, probably, the demand is going down too.”

“Did anything happen to the search graph in 2008 with the financial crash?” I asked.

“Not particularly,” said Neale. “It’s not a fiscal cliff. It’s a steady decline.”

“So,” I said, “you’re going to be changing the type of shows you put on.”

“At the end of this month,” Neale explained, “we’ll be booking acts up until August for normal club shows and then, after that, we’ll be booking single-artist shows to run on Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays after August.”

“It was over a year ago,” Noel Faulkner reminded me, “that we decided to turn the old Comedy Cafe into more of a theatre-type venue – the Comedy Cafe Theatre – and attract a theatre-type audience and now that’s actually happening.”

“What’s the difference between the theatre audience and the comedy audience?” I asked.

NoelFaulkner_16feb2013

Noel Faulkner at the Comedy Cafe Theatre

“The theatre audience,” replied Noel, “can actually all read and write and they have an IQ of some level. The comedy audience are feckin’ brain dead and don’t know why we’re not giving them Michael McIntyre.”

“But this is the audience you’ve been catering to for years,” I prompted.

“Well,” said Noel, “we’ve all been catering to them for years. Poor old Jongleurs and the Comedy Store Late Show too. Of course you have to cater to the masses. We all have to suck the corporate cock, whether we’re gay or not.”

“So what different type of comedy will these theatrical comedians be doing in their one-person shows?” I asked Noel.

“It’s not a difference in comedy,” explained Noel. “Comics do what they do, but it’s better if you have a sophisticated audience. The other problem, though, is that sophisticated audiences don’t spend money. They have a couple of drinks and they’re happy. They don’t have to get shit-faced, because their lives aren’t horrible. Whereas your average comedy audience – their lives are so horrible that they go crazy at weekends and they feel they haven’t had a good night out unless they’ve thrown-up a few times, had a fight and punched their girlfriend.”

“In that case, surely,” I suggested, “as a businessman, you should be appealing to the drunken comedy audience who throw money around and not to the more sophisticated audience who don’t spend money.”

“If that’s what I wanted to do for a living,” said Noel, “but, if I just wanted to make a living, I could deal crystal meth or run a lap-dancing club.”

“So,” I asked, “the comedians are going to do the same things but longer in their one-person shows…?”

“Well,” said Noel. “Comedians doing these one-person shows are not compelled to come out with a gag every thirty seconds. It’s going the way I planned it. I want a theatre.”

“You always wanted a theatre?”

“I always wanted a feckin’ audience that would sit down and appreciate the effort that’s gone into it,” said Noel.

The Comedy Cafe is also expanding into producing comedy shows as downloadable MP3s. Soon they are going to release shows recorded at the Comedy Cafe Theatre by Steve N Allen, Anil Desai, Robin Ince, Michael Legge and Eric McElroy.

The sound of comedy from the Cafe

Expanding Cafe laughter – from live shows to mp3 downloads

“When’s that happening?” I asked Neale Welch.

“It’s just being cut now,” he told me. “I’m sorting out the webpage, the hosting and the PayPal and the functionality, so I’m thinking in the next two weeks; something like that. They’ll be released under the individual artists’ names; there will be a standalone page linked-to from our website; the Comedy Cafe will just be a footnote; we’ve just facilitated it.”

“And the appeal of the audio recordings to you is…?” I asked.

“They give us interesting live shows,” Neale told me. “And a bit of legacy. They will still be there in a few years time. We can build the business into more than one arm. We already have the club, the talent agency, a casting agency. It just gives us another arm.”

“And it means you have content beyond live shows,” I suggested.

“Exactly,” agreed Neale. “And we are looking into other content formats.”

Set List - shows coming to Comedy Cafe

Set List comes to Comedy Cafe Theatre

Neale told me the Comedy Cafe is also having Paul Provenza’s superb Set List comedy improvisation shows coming in for a run every Monday from March 11th for six weeks.

“And then,” Noel Faulkner told me, “we’ve another big production company coming in as well. I can’t name them yet. But they’ll come in weekly or monthly with their acts to prepare them for their TV programmes. A lot of people in the comedy business are suddenly realising there’s a small 120-seat space that is really keen to do good theatre. There’s room for three cameras. A tiny stage, but it works: it’s cosy, it’s intimate and it’s what I always wanted to do.”

“In a recent blog,” I said, “I mentioned how, in the future, streaming live club comedy on the internet might affect club business. And Don Ward’s Comedy Store is doing feature films of its shows.”

The Comedy Store film - "It won't work"

The Comedy Store film. “It’s a great idea… It won’t work”

“It won’t work,” said Noel. “It’s a great idea and I asked him why the cinemas are doing it. He told me it’s on the slow movie nights and I thought Well, on the slow movie nights – Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday – people don’t want to go out. Why go see a movie on a Tuesday night when you can see it on a Friday or Saturday night? So it’s a Tuesday night and there are comics on the big screen? Well, first of all, you don’t need to see a comic on a big screen, because there’s not a lot to look at. And what? You’re going to go all the way down town to a movie theatre and pay top dollar when you can just nip over to the Comedy Store for the same price on a Tuesday night?”

“But punters can’t pop down to the Comedy Store if they live in Plymouth or Aberdeen,” I suggested.

“Well,” replied Noel, “all they have to do is flip over to YouTube or the Dave TV channel and they can see the exact same comedy on a screen.”

“I can’t see the feature film idea working,” I said, “but, in the future, if you did live streaming from the Comedy Store or the Comedy Cafe and it cost a punter only 99p to watch it in Norwich or Belfast or the Outer Hebrides instead of coming to London to see the same acts…”

“Yes,” said Noel. “If, for £5, you could catch the Late Show at the Comedy Store on the internet outside London, that would be great. But the Comedy Store isn’t doing that. They’re trying to fill a cinema. Also, if you’re in a cinema, are people really going to laugh? If there’s only 100 people spread out over 600 seats, you don’t get the atmosphere of a live club.”

“But what happens,” I asked, “when there is live streaming of good acts from a good club at a cheap price? Janey Godley looked into live-streaming her Edinburgh Fringe show from the Underbelly in, I think, 2005 and they couldn’t do it technically from that building at that time. I’ve never understood why no-one has live-streamed their Edinburgh shows so people can see them in Los Angeles and Adelaide. In a few years time, you could have the Comedy Cafe doing a live show to people in London and live-streaming it on a 99p pay-per view so people can see it in Newcastle or Cardiff.”

“Make it £1,” said Noel. “Don’t do this 99p shit.”

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Paul Provenza, director-producer, wants more emotional reactions to comedy

(This piece was also published in the Huffington Post and by Indian news site We Speak News)

Paul Provenza thinks about some people he has worked with

At the recent Edinburgh Fringe, for the second year running, far-and-away the trendiest show among comics themselves was Set List – Comedy Without a Net, in which, when they go on stage, unprepared comedians are given five (usually bizarre) phrases which they have to weave into an act. They do not know the words in advance and the phrases are revealed only one by one during the comedians ‘set’.

Experienced comics can sometimes die a terrible death in front of the audience; unknowns can sometimes soar. And you can often see the fear in the comics’ eyes. But even the biggest comedians want to play Set List because it stretches their ability.

American Paul Provenza, best-known for directing The Aristocrats movie, brought Set List to this country – it has also played at the Soho Theatre in London. I asked him how it came about.

“I was in LA,” he told me, “and Troy Conrad called me one day after maybe the third time he’d ever done it. He said: Do you wanna come down and do this thing? We make up a set list and you improv it. After I did it, I went backstage and told Troy: Would you honor us by partnering with us, because I think we can take this thing around the world? Every comic in the world has to see and experience this show. It’s good for comedy. It feels great.”

“Who is Troy Conrad?” I asked.

“He’s one of these brilliant comedy artists,” said Paul, “both in stand-up as well as writing and producing – he produces all sorts of really interesting podcasts – he’s one of these multi-talent polymaths who is just constantly creating so much that he never actually has the time to push any of the stuff he’s created because he’s moved on already.”

“Much like you, then,” I said to Paul. “What are you? A comedian or an actor or a director?”

“I’m a comedian first and foremost,” Paul told me decisively. “I’ve been doing stand-up comedy since I was 16. But one of the reasons I’m such an Anglophile is I studied acting seriously when I went to RADA in London in the late 1970s for about a year and a half. I am 100 years old. I’ve done a lot of acting. A lot of stage acting in New York. I worked with Steve Martin off-Broadway, doing his play for about a year and a national tour of that and lots of other projects. It’s something I’ve always done.

“I guess it’s kinda been one of my career curses that I’m always doing so many different things I can’t figure out exactly what I am and the business is so shallow that, if people can’t nail you to one spot on the wall, they don’t know what to do with you. I like to think of myself as someone who can’t hold a job. I’m a migrant comedy worker.”

“Comedians and actors have doolally minds,” I said. “But producing and and directing needs a mind that’s more together. You produce and direct. How come you can do that?”

“Well,” said Paul. “that happened after knowing Barbara Romen for 30 plus years and being really close friends. Our lives sort of ended in a similar place at around a similar time. She was always saying What are you doing over in Edinburgh? Why do you leave the country for a year at a time? You’re doing a gig in Shanghai? What??? What’s going on? 

“I told her I can’t explain it to you. You’ve gotta come and experience it. So she came over to the Edinburgh Fringe and she understood and became infected too. Then we decided we were both sick of dealing with corporate structures, sick of dealing with the mainstream, basically sick of dealing with cunts. We’d both dealt with too many cunts in our lives and thinking Why can’t we just do what we do and have cool people around all the time?

“So, after Barbara got initiated into the foreign comedy scene, we decided Well, let’s start working together which we’d both been leery of before, because we were friends. But we decided that, over the 30 years we’d known each other, we’d already had pretty much every fight we could ever have, so we negotiated… What new fight could we have that could fuck this up?… and we finally said Let’s just do it. It’s too hard to find new people who are on the same page.

“So, the long-winded answer to your question is it’s all to do with the people around you. If it weren’t for partnering with her, I don’t have what it takes to bring all these ideas to fruition. Barbara suddenly made it possible for crazy ideas to actually get accomplished.

Barbara Romen with me during my chat with Paul Provenza (photograph by Paul Provenza)

“I’m from New York, she’s from Chicago. We probably originally met hanging around the Improv in LA in the early 1980s. Barbara has been on every side of the showbiz table.

“She’s been a Development Executive at a major studio, been a production executive, she’s worked for agencies – she used to represent Andy Kaufman! I mean, her pedigree is insanely brilliant. But, like me, she would follow her heart and go off and do whatever she felt like doing, so her career doesn’t have a linear path. With us teaming up, we bring together all those different understandings of different sides of the business and, as a result, we can end up dodging the raindrops and creating our own paths, which is really tough to do.”

“So,” I suggested, “you are creative with a bit of organisational. And she is organisational with a bit of creative?”

“Well,” said Paul, “she has a lot of creative ability, but I also bring something really interesting to the table. At this point in my life, I don’t give a fuck. I don’t care who I piss off. I tell the truth. I don’t care who’s offended. I truly don’t care. And you know what? It’s tremendously liberating and phenomenally productive.”

I turned to Barbara, who was sitting with us.

“It’s a separate blog,” I said, “but it would be interesting to chat about how on earth you or anyone could ever manage to represent Andy Kaufman.”

“No, it wouldn’t make for a good interview,”  Barbara said. “In person, he was quite mild and nothing like his multiple onstage personalities.”

“Mmmmm…..” I replied.

“I guess we work on the fringes of real showbusiness,” said Paul.

“But you had your own series The Green Room with Paul Provenza on US television,” I said.

And Set List is going to be on UK TV on Sky Atlantic,” Paul agreed, “But Barbara and I, as the figureheads of a small little scrappy group of Ninja production people… we operate in a different world from America’s Got Talent or Michael McIntyre’s Roadshow. We operate in that world where we do things that are weird and interesting and cool and a little bit different and treat comedy with a different attitude, so we’re sorta on the fringes.”

“OK,” I said. “but you’re pretty successful at it. A cult feature film and two TV series on different sides of the Atlantic. What’s next?”

“The book I had out last year with Dan Dion – !Satiristas!” Paul replied. “We still do a lot of live projects based around that. We‘ve been doing experimental live shows – big theatrical pieces with Tim Robbins and the Actors’ Gang in Los Angeles. Putting together particular types of shows for particular events.

“And I’ve started half a dozen documentaries which will go or not go depending on what happens. We’ve got TV projects that we wanna do all over the place. We’re looking for a new TV home for The Green Room now. But the really great thing about us having partnered and understanding the expansiveness of comedy around the world right now, is that everything on our plate is all stuff that we’re passionate about. We just don’t do anything we’re not passionate about.

“I’d never really had a through line in my ‘career’ before partnering with Barbara. But all our projects at the moment are about presenting comedy in a different way that operates on a more emotional level. It’s not just how funny it is… It’s Whoa! This is making me feel things! Wow! Imagine living in the world that way! Imagine what excitement to be around people who just speak the truth and are spontaneously funny and don’t play by conventional rules! It’s almost like a paradigm shift for people to experience that.

“And it’s what I felt when I first became a comedian and actually entered the world of real comedy. It didn’t just operate on the basis of Hmmm! I have a career ahead of me. I’m going to do this and strategise that way and I’ll get this and get that. It was like Oh! There’s a whole species of people here who are outsiders, who all speak the same language! And that was huge for me on an emotional and psychological level.

“All the projects we do involving comedy are trying to embrace that aspect of it: this is not just merchandising, not just pop culture – Oh, that’s a funny joke! – It’s more about Wow! This is a different way to live in the world! And comedians are the ones who can make a living doing it that way.

“But,” I said, “if you are making these shows mainly for comedians, will Mr Smith in Oregon be interested?”

“That’s the interesting thing,” said Paul. “I truly believe that, if you do something that speaks to comedians – like Set List.… when you’re that true and that authentic, an audience will show up for it because it’s the kind of comedy that people are always blown away by – It’s unprepared, it’s spontaneous, you feel like you are part of the genesis of it, just being in the room. You feel somehow related to what’s happening – and, while people don’t know they’re looking for it, I believe that people nowadays are craving authenticity. We live in a very cynical age where things are marketed down people’s throats. There’s a generation alive now that I can’t even relate to what it must be like for them. From the day they were born, they’ve been marketed-to and demographised to within an inch of their lives. What must that be like?

“People want truth and authenticity. Though not everybody. There are people who want the slick bubblegum and they can always get that in music, comedy, TV. It’s there. We’re never gonna make that disappear. But we do now live in a world where the alternative can also find its audience. There’s a little bit more room on the shelf for stuff that isn’t necessarily McDonalds.”

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Videos: The Malcolm Hardee Comedy Debate at the 2011 Edinburgh Fringe…

(Left to right) Janey Godley, Bob Slayer, me, Paul Provenza and Kate Copstick discussing comedy… (videos courtesy of Billy Watson)

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The Edinburgh Fringe is sick. What is missing? The true spirit of the Fringe…

A comedy god has vomited on Edinburgh

The anonymous Poster Menace has e-mailed me another photograph. It is of an food trolley standing unattended in the street after some unknown accident. Unexplained. It could be an exhibit from Tate Modern. To me, it looks like abstract vomit. And a sign of the former essential anarchy now largely missing from the Edinburgh Fringe.

Walking round the streets of Edinburgh this last week, I have realised there is something odd this year.

Things are neater.

They were neater last year.

They are even neater this year.

The Fringe is sick.

The original basis of the Fringe is that it is an open festival. No-one is invited; no-one is organised. Anyone can come, put on any show they like in any place they can get and no-one actually controls what they do. The central Fringe Office simply issues a Fringe Programme with information provided by the performers. It does not control what goes into the Programme or what the performers do.

Except now it does.

As of this year, it has censored shows’ titles, it has censored shows’ descriptions, it has even insisted that the written description of shows printed in the Fringe Programme should use correct English grammar in the phrasing. It has become a schoolmasterly control freak.

Parallel to this, Edinburgh Council has controlled how shows are advertised on the streets. You can still say COCK, PRICK, SHIT in large letters on your posters prominently displayed in public thoroughfares throughout the city (although the Fringe Office has banned these words in its printed Programme – despite the fact they were acceptable in previous years).

In a seemingly reasonable move a couple of years ago, Edinburgh Council stopped turning a blind eye to random postering in the streets by rogue postering companies. This seemed reasonable enough. You cannot, so the argument goes, have people randomly postering on private and public properties and walls all over the city. It also meant the Council could charge for postering. But there was a consequence.

Now you can only poster in designated ways on designated sites using designated postering companies.

Look around the streets of Edinburgh and it still seems like hundreds of different shows are being advertised. But, look closer, and you see that (ignoring the mega big posters which were always put there by big companies) the ‘normal’ sized posters on the streets are almost all for the Big Four venues or for acts being put on by the big promoters.

Any small or middling shows have been marginalised to the half-glimpsed windows and doorways of small shops or, almost invisibly, inside and to a tiny extent outside the smaller venues.

The original basic and essential anarchy and uncontrollability of the Fringe is being reined in and controlled. The big venues are becoming bar areas with performance rooms not performance rooms with bars. The Fringe Programme is becoming a magazine where people have to pay to advertise but have no final control over their own paid-for words. The street advertising has already been moved into more corporate control.

The Fringe has been officialised, standardised and controlled. The PBH Free Fringe  and Laughing Horse Free Festival (occasionally bitter rivals) have re-invented the spirit of the old Fringe. But it may be too late.

On the other hand, there are still some free spirits and uncontrollable events.

Janey Godley and Paul Provenza in Edinburgh last night

Last night I went to see my comedy chum Janey Godley perform on Paul Provenza‘s (terrifying for performers) improvisation-based Set List. She stormed it, but told me afterwards: “It’s like the opposite of normal comedy. Set List gets harder the more you do it. You run on adrenaline the first time but then, the more you do it, the more your brain knows how difficult it is and tries to sabotage you!” 

An extra last-minute guest on the show was Phil Kay, who arrived without a plectrum for his guitar. Someone lent him a credit card and he played with that. There will probably be some Fringe rule preventing this soon, unless the credit card belongs to a Fringe-sponsoring bank.

When I got back to my flat at 3.30am, I found Free Festival/Alternative Fringe promoter Bob Slayer had sent me yet another e-mail. Is there no end to his quest for self-publicity? Let us hope not.

His venue The Hive is on Niddry Street, a narrow, steep street linking the higher Royal Mile with the lower Cowgate. A couple of doors down from his venue is the rival PBH Free Fringe venue The Banshee Labyrinth. At the bottom of the street are Bannerman’s pub and some Just The Tonic venues.

Bob’s latest e-mail reads :

____________________ 

Bob Slayer’s show has ended up in the gutter

John –

I want you to know that it wasn’t me! 

The blocked drains at the PBH Banshee Labyrinth that are causing poo and pee to flow down the street into PBH Bannermans are nothing to do with me! The Alternative Fringe flyers which are floating out of the drain and along the river of tepid toilet water are merely a coincidence… 

Earlier in the week, Daryl at Just The Tonic came up and asked me if I had anything to do with their power cut. 

And now I am getting fingered for blocking drains… ____________________ 

Some people will do – or, at least, suggest – anything to get mentioned in this blog.

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How Set List marketing and Sarah Palin made comic Rich Hall soar last night

There seem to be comedy improvisation shows all over London at the moment. If comedy is the new rock ’n’ roll, then I guess improvisation is like the occasional fad for long guitar riffs.

I have mentioned in a previous blog that, when I was a student (around the time Louis XIV was on the throne of France), I saw Keith Johnstone’s seminal weekly Theatre Machine in Hampstead.

I have also blogged before about the comedy improvisation show Set List, when it was the sleeper comedy hit at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe.

It started small but gathered extraordinary word-of-mouth, especially among performers and, despite venue and time changes which would have scuppered other Fringe shows, it very quickly had full houses and ‘Name’ comics lining up, desperate to perform and – just as important – to be seen to perform. It was a show with prestige among comedians.

Last night, ending a run at the Soho Theatre in London, Set List had a packed audience, up for anything, full of anticipation at attending an ‘event’.

You know you are onto a winner if your first-on-the-bill is the wonderful Rich Hall, your final act Andrew Maxwell has ploughed through Saturday night London traffic from a performance in Greenwich to take part in your show and, when a billed act drops out, you can get a last-minute stand-in of the calibre of Dave Gorman.

Quite how this ‘hot ticket’ feeling happens is almost always beyond comprehension.

Of course, it helps that the man behind Set List is Paul Provenza director of the cult comedy industry documentary The Aristocrats(who flew over from Los Angeles to attend the last few shows) and that his man on British soil is the well-connected comic Matt Kirshen, but there is also very shrewd marketing going on.

The sense of anticipation last night (in an audience who had overwhelmingly not seen Set List before) was built-up partly by its late start – there’s nothing like being stuck in an over-crowded entrance hallway filled with chatty Guardian readers for 20 minutes to build a sense of up-market expectation – but also by an on-stage screen which, as the room filled up, was flashing rave quotes about the show from publications and, surprisingly, one from the excellent rising comic Diane Spencer.

There are currently bigger comedy names than Diane Spencer, but I suspect the Set List originators have rightly thought, “She is likely to become very successful,” and are getting into her good books early.

Shrewd marketing. If the punters recognise her name, they give themselves a pat on the back for having their fingers on the pulse. If that is physically possible.

All improvisation shows are, by their nature, a variable ride, but the (justified) self-aggrandisement of Set List works wonders. You are left in no doubt from the flyers, pre-show build-up and great sales technique of compere Matt Kirshen that you are attending an ‘event’ of some importance and that you are a superior punter for having chosen to be there.

Of course, it also helps that, unlike most improvisation shows which have built-in safety-nets of pre-prepared arcs and relationships, Set List is genuinely improvised by the comics and often savagely exposes comedians who are falling back on their own old material or who cannot link the six bizarre topic titles they are given.

If they perform six little separate routines based round the six given phrases, it does not work. They look like open-spot beginners.

But, if they can knit the six unconnected Set List topics together with one or more ongoing subject threads, then they can soar – as Rich Hall did last night with Alaska, grisly bears and Sarah Palin working wonders for him.

He triumphed, but I think the reason top comedians want to perform on Set List is really because it is creatively dangerous. The risk of falling off the comedy high-wire is greater because the performers are not in as much control as in a normal stand-up act and, as I have written before in this blog, I think comedians are a bunch of masochists with an urge to fail.

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Day Three of Malcolm Hardee Week – pasta chaos and a finger up the bottom

Malcolm Hardee Week continues apace.

After Monday’s Malcolm Hardee Debate finished a whole hour late (it merged into the next show), Scots comic Nob Stewart grabbed Kate Copstick when she came off stage and chatted to her on camera for 45 minutes.

I guess the adrenaline (and possibly the two pints she had had on-stage) pumped away. In the first two minutes, she named a comedy company whose flyerers had physically threatened her and she was laying into the big promoters at the Edinburgh Fringe. If you think she is sharp-tongued on ITV1’s Show Me The Funny, you have only heard the half of it…

Later today, Copstick is travelling down to the O2 arena in London as a judge for the live final of Show Me The Funny (although the winner is decided by viewer voting). Then tomorrow she is on a train back up to Edinburgh when we decide the Malcolm Hardee Award winners at noon and she will take an active part through the wonders of 21st century technology. As I said in my blog yesterday, what’s this thing with the Prime Minister having to be dragged back from holiday every time something happens?

If we had Copstick as Prime Minister, things would be easier.

Me? I have to be at the Blue Moon cafe-restaurant-bar in Barony Street just off Broughton Street in the New Town at noon today to collect more spaghetti for the second day of the Malcolm Hardee Spaghetti-Juggling Contest. The Blue Moon is generously sponsoring us with free spaghetti.

The spaghetti-juggling happens outside the Beehive Inn in the Grassmarket.

Yesterday the first spaghetti-juggling contest, partially in the rain, became less of a solo juggling event, more a three-a-side sideways-throwing contest with the participants constantly changing. This came about when Scots comedian Bruce Fummey valiantly tried to bring some order into the proceedings; it must be his background as a teacher.

In its latter stages, to be honest, with spaghetti stocks dwindling, the thing degenerated more into a custard-pie type spaghetti fight than juggling. The arrival of Malcolm Award nominated Johnny Sorrow on the scene in a macintosh and flat cap did little to quell the degeneration of this fine potential Olympic sport – and he seemed to encourage the rain.

At the end, Laughing Horse Free Festival supremo Alex Petty mucked-in with a stiff broom, helping to clear up the scattered spaghetti in the cobbles outside the Beehive Inn. If his flirtation with big-time comedy promoting ever falls through, he has a future as a street sweeper.

Today’s spaghetti-juggling will include on-the-spot advice on the aerodynamics of pasta from Dr Sophia Khan, formerly of NASA , Harvard, the Japanese Space Agency and Shanghai University. She will be joined by Dr Andrew Bunker, former Head of Astronomy at the Anglo-Australian Observatory in Oz and now Reader in Astrophysics at Oxford University.

Who said spaghetti-juggling was trivial?

Brainiac eat your heart out.

While waiting for the spaghetti-juggling to start yesterday, I got dragged into Lancelot Adams’ show outside the Beehive Inn – The Magic Drawabout – an enticingly odd concept in which he gets passing members of the public to take part in a one hour show which involves drawing each other in various parts of the Grassmarket while he chats to the ‘sitter’.

He told me he had thought I looked like a weirdo when he first saw me in the street, but soon realised I was not. I was genuinely offended this.

Have the last several decades of my life, cultivating weirdness, all been in vain?

The Magic Drawabout and Lancelot Adams’ other show at the Beehive Inn – Ze Hoff Und Friends – about David Hasselhoff – are decidedly quirky, but the ‘sleeper’ of the Fringe has arguably been Paul Provenza’s Set List: Standup Without a Net which started in Just The Tonic at the Tron, then moved to one of Just The Tonic’s bigger venues at The Caves and now has moved to a bigger Cave, such has been its increasing popularity. It has gathered even more word-of-mouth with Paul Provenza flying in from LA last week.

Set List: Standup Without a Net has also been getting a lot of word-of-mouth buzz among comedians, because its format of the stand-up comic being shown a list of six words or phrases as subjects – the set list – one-at-a-time without pre-warning only when they are on stage is an utter nightmare. The best comics can weave a thread through the disparate subjects rather than just perform six unconnected routines. The risk of getting lost is high. The likelihood of a comedian eventually shitting on stage must be equally high.

Last night, among those trying their luck were Frank Skinner, Hardeep Singh Kohli, Richard Herring and Phill Jupitus. Big names for a concept that seems likely to get bigger.

One tiny aside…

While waiting to get into Set List last night, a comic came up to me and said she had just been to Malcolm Hardee Award nominee Bob Slayer’s show at The Hive where, on stage, she had stuck her finger up his bottom. A rubber glove had been provided by the ever-amenable Bob.

As far as I know, it is the second time this has happened in Bob’s show.

Call me old-fashioned but I think, as a format, Set List: Standup Without a Net has more likelihood of being commissioned as a TV series.

I would be happy to be proved wrong, though I am not sure I would be watching on a regular basis.

Bob Slayer was nominated for this year’s Malcolm Hardee Award “for going beyond OTT into uncharted areas of comedy excess”.

I think it would be difficult to fault our nomination.

When I mentioned this story to Bob Slayer, he said, “Well, I do want to point out that it did not happen a second time – The lady who did it the first time was in the audience last night and so another lady tried to emulate her (who wouldn’t?) – She tried to do a fist but failed .

“I obviously don’t want people to think that any Tom, Dick or Harry can finger my entrails.”

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