Tag Archives: Robert White

Why Britain’s Got Talent finalist Robert White has such wide appeal

 In a blog here at the end of April, musical comedian and Malcolm Hardee Comedy Award winner Robert White explained why he had entered Britain’s Got Talent this year.

After winning most public votes from viewers in his semi-final appearance, he is now through to the live Sunday night final tomorrow on ITV1.

It seemed the right time to ask him why he seems to have such a wide appeal.

So I asked him…

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JOHN: After your song on the semi-final, your mother now definitely knows you are gay.

ROBERT: Yes and gay comedians have been my idols since I was young. There’s a sort of gay sense of humour you have if you’re camp or an outsider. I know Britain’s Got Talent has a massive gay following, a massive musical theatre following.

My song had a particular gay slant to it. We all have a particular relationship with our parents and I think it was maybe a song that other gay people found an empathy with.

JOHN: You said you had gay idols. For example…?

ROBERT: One of the people I looked up to and look up to is a guy called Mark Bunyan, who I think was the first openly gay performer at the Edinburgh Fringe. If you listen to the sort of songs he did then, they are about the same sort of level – or tamer – than the stuff I’ve done on Britain’s Got Talent.

JOHN: You write songs with intricate lyrics. But you are dyslexic. That must be a bit of a problem.

ROBERT: Well, since I was a kid, it has been easier to make stuff up than to read it. I can read and write music and lyrics but, by the time you’ve sat down and got the end of the line, you could have played most of it by ear anyway.

JOHN: Any creative genes in your family?

ROBERT: My granddad – Samuel Thomas – was from Wales and he was a massive part of my life. A lot of my comedy comes from him. He was from Bleinavon – he was eccentric and intelligent; he was self-taught; he was told he could have been a teacher but he wanted to go and spend time down the pits with his brothers. His father was a band leader and he himself played the euphonium and the cornet. All my music comes from him. He was this crazy, eccentric musical genius: a brilliant man.

I’m regularly in Neath: there’s a lovely comedy festival there. I do gigs in Cardiff, Aberystwyth, all over.

One thing I remember about doing my first gig in Wales was when I first got heckled. The words were nasty, but the accent itself just reminded me of my granddad. So I sort-of can’t be effectively heckled in Wales because it just reminds me of this lovely Welsh voice that used to tell me stories when I was a child.

JOHN: But now you’re a Londoner…

ROBERT: Well, I have adopted London. At the moment, I live in Mile End, but I’ve lived all over London – Brixton, Kilburn, Willesden Green, North, South, East, West. London has done for me what it has done for a lot of people. It has made me who I am. I was born in Sussex – born in Crawley, brought up in Horsham – but made in London..

I had a police escort when I was born. My dad was on his way to Crawley Hospital with my pregnant mother, could not find the entrance, stopped by the side of the road, was spotted by a policeman and I got a police escort to the hospital.

JOHN: That sounds a suitably bizarre entrance to the world for a gay, dyslexic, Aspergic, quarter-Welsh, web-toed performer.

ROBERT: Things which used to be classed as disabilities are now accepted and I think that’s very positive.

500-1,000 years ago, people who were left-handed were being called witches and branded as outcasts.

20 years ago, I was allowed to be dyslexic at primary school, but I was not allowed to be dyslexic at secondary school because they did not have the funding for it.

Now these things are accepted. By highlighting them, what I would like to do is make them be seen as normal. They are not exceptional; they are just different.

JOHN: Which brings us to the fact you have web toes…

ROBERT: When people ask me about my web toes, I try to ‘duck’ the question. My nan had webbed toes as well. Quite a lot of people have it. Anne Boleyn had a sixth finger and it may or may not have been webbed.

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Filed under autism, Comedy, dyslexia, Gay, Music, Talent, Wales

Why Robert White went on Britain’s Got Talent and what comedy has taught him

Robert White won the Malcolm Hardee Award for Comic Originality at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2010 (beating Bo Burnham and Dr Brown). He claims to be – and I think no-one is going to dispute this – the only gay, dyslexic, quarter-Welsh, Aspergic, web-toed comedian working on the UK comedy circuit.


JOHN: So why did you do Britain’s Got Talent?

Robert White, aspiring primary school teacher

ROBERT: Because I had given up comedy.

In August last year, the Edinburgh Fringe financially destroyed me so much that I decided I was going to go full-time into teaching music in primary schools.

JOHN: I genuinely thought it was a wonderful Fringe show.

ROBERT: Well, doing an opera like that was artistically spectacular but the only thing it did for my career is that, now, if I die in poverty, at least I’ve got a chance of being recognised 200 years after I’m dead as a composer.

JOHN: Why primary school children? Because they are not as stroppy as teenagers?

ROBERT: Yes. There is an element of discipline. But, being dyslexic yet very creative, I’m very good at taking things and translating them in a very innovative and creative way. Obviously, I have done a degree and highly academic work, but, rather than engaging with HUGE amounts of written material and expressing it in an academic, written way, I would much prefer engaging with limited written material and expressing it in a creative way

In secondary schools, there is a lot of This Date… That Date. I can and have done all of that but, because of the nature of me, I would not choose to do so much of it; there is just so much more writing and so much more reading. With primary school, you are taking things like scale or high and low and the basic elements of music and conveying them in various different interesting creative ways.

I looked into it and, because I had not used it for so long, the PGCE (teaching qualification) I had from 20 years ago was no longer valid. So I would have to re-train. When I decided to go into teaching full-time, it was literally a week after the training course had stopped. There is a thing, though, whereby you can teach primary school music if you have a degree and some teaching experience: which I have.

So I thought: If I do some primary school teaching, that will give me some income. And, if I do the gigs I have, that will give me some other income. And the primary school teaching I do will give me enough experience so that, at the end of the year, instead of having to re-train, I can get a position in a private school where you don’t actually need to have the teaching qualifications.

So that was going to be my career path. A year of finishing-off comedy and building-up teaching then, at the end of it, I would be teaching full-time.

The reason for Britain’s Got Talent was I thought: Well, I’ve done 12 or 13 years of comedy. I may as well cash in what I’ve done and at least that way I can prove to my mum that I’ve done the most I can.

“At least that way I can prove to my mum that I’ve done the most I can.”

I told my mum: “Look, I just don’t want to struggle any more.” I don’t mind whether comedy works or teaching works or if I move home and just start a job in a shop and work my way up to be a supervisor. I just don’t want to struggle any more.

The last 20 years, it has felt as if I’ve been trying to pay off the same £1,000 overdraft and never succeeding…

JOHN: You’ve been doing comedy for a while now…

ROBERT: I have Asperger’s Syndrome and comedy through the last 13 years has been like CBT – Cognitive Behavioural Therapy.

I have been putting myself in difficult situations, night after night after night, and it has helped so much. Comedy has not just brought me a comedy career, it has actually helped my Asperger’s enough that I can now do a normal job. It has got me to a point now where I can teach.

Comedy has taught me about people and Asperger’s and the way I think. Every year, I’ve become more free. Even walking on stage, I now don’t think I have to do A-B-C-D in a certain order. I’m more relaxed.

JOHN: Whereas before…?

ROBERT: Because I have Asperger’s, I find it very difficult to connect with people in the real world and all of my social processes are thought-through processes. Now, with what I’ve learnt from years of doing comedy, some have become more intuitive. But they are not naturally intuitive.

You don’t have Asperger’s so, to you, reading facial expressions is intuitive. To me, it is not. Literally thinking-through and analysing: What is this other person thinking? How do I act in this situation? Which becomes very very very very tiring.

The thing that comedy has done for me is it taught me about social skills and gave me an understanding of people. If you think of the audience as a macro-person, then that translates into how one person acts to the individual micro-person. It has helped me understand about people.

But conversely what that has meant is that, sort of like horse whispering, I’ve got an almost unusually natural understanding of audiences that other people wouldn’t have – because I analyse them in a certain way. If there’s any way my autistic mind does work well in the overly-analytical way, it’s basically an understanding of the audience and what’s going on.

I’m the only person I know who, before he goes on, fills up his hand and his whole arm not with jokes but with social cues. That’s because, when I first started – and now – I needed to reinforce myself with certain things. I still do that.

JOHN: Writing on your arm such things as…?

ROBERT: Be nice. No rudes. Time equals money. There is an understanding that there is a right sort of groan and a wrong sort of groan. That has now come to inform me on a level other people don’t have. Which is why standing on stage now and being able to say whatever I want is an amazingly freeing thing. 

The judges’ reaction to Robert White on Britain’s Got Talent

When it got to Britain’s Got Talent and the audition, I looked at my act…

If you take away the crudeness and swearing – there is so much still left. I had not considered that before. There is quirkiness, jokes, puns, silliness, music. I have got many more strings to my bow than I originally considered.

JOHN: You are playing 20-minute spots at the Comedy Store now.

ROBERT: I did the Gong Show at the Comedy Store about two years ago and it was a really rough gig. There was this woman shouting me at the front and I had to go off-piste and really properly play the gig. So, in an absolute, utter bear-pit gig, I won the night.  Eleven years earlier, I did the Gong Show, walked onto the stage; same response; but I ripped my tee-shirt and started crying.

That is what comedy has done for me.

The whole process of doing comedy and then Edinburgh making me give up comedy led to Britain’s Got Talent and rising like a phoenix from the ashes.

But we don’t know what tomorrow holds.

All I want is to not struggle.

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Edinburgh Fringe Day 1: Good shows, a questionable director and a late disaster

Mark Borkowski is looking for originality

In the afternoon, with Kate Copstick, I recorded the first in a revived series of Grouchy Club Podcasts with stunt-loving PR guru Mark Borkowski who is up here partly to find right-wing comedians who may appear in a series of TV shows on RT (Russia Today). Well, that is my spin on it. Really he is looking for anyone who is so original and different that they are unlikely to get onto the currently bland and unoriginal British TV channels. Mark, in performance terms, has a taste for the bizarre and the original. He is well worth a listen.

After that, I went to see Robert White’s show billed as a comedy opera InstraMENTAL which was – rather dauntingly for the first Fringe show I have seen this year – utterly brilliant. Robert won the Malcolm Hardee Award for Comic Originality in 2010 so can he be nominated again? Who knows? This unified show is so different it is not what he won for before and, unexpectedly, Kate Copstick’s voice turns up about ¾ of the way through. When I texted her about being in his show, it was news to her.

Narin Oz, budgerigar & Brunström belly paint

I had forgotten to take a photo of Mark Borkowski during the podcast recording, something I did not fail to do at Fringe Central when I was accosted by Narin Oz, who showed me a photo on her phone of her blue budgerigar in front of a blue painting created by Malcolm Hardee Award winning Michael Brunström’s belly.

Anyone present at the relevant Brunström shows will be aware this is not a joke.

Narin also showed me a photo of herself covered in mud and pointed out that her show #DirtyWoman includes copious amounts of real mud. She told me all her #DirtyWoman shows are being billed as ‘work-in-progress’ shows and, after the Edinburgh shows are finished, she will do previews in London of the already-performed shows. She said she reckons she may end up performing back in her mother’s womb. You maybe had to be there.

Elf Lyons – colourful Swan

Later, I saw that infinitely-rare thing, an act that has arguably been made even better by going to see that Gaulier man in France. Admittedly, we are talking about the already-highly-talented Elf Lyons. In her show Swan, she is telling and acting out the story of Swan Lake in eccentric costumes with dancing and mime and ongoing spiel in a form of Franglais. It is difficult to do justice to it all in a written description but, in parts, it is a sort-of disguised stand-up show with a Gaulier veneer, a lot of movement and her personality making it sparkle. She was justifiably playing to a full room.

In the audience watching her was Juliette Burton, whose Butterfly Effect show was today and will in future be (it is getting heavily booked-up ahead) playing to full houses.

All of the above titbits are part of the joy of the Fringe.

But I also received an email today from an act telling me about their show’s director:

The cobbles of Edinburgh have seen some blood flow in the last 70 years of the Fringe.

“I have paid (the named person) more than £2,000 over the last year to be director for my show and (the person) just told me TODAY that they won’t be coming up to the Fringe this year as if that’s the norm. They say their other clients who have shows here don’t mind. And I am even expected to pay an invoice for August because (the person) says they can direct my performance from London. It has really knocked me for six. This same person was here for my first few shows last year. I thought a director’s job was to sit in the audience early on to take notes. I worked really really hard doing various jobs to pay the director’s fees.”

Then, as I was about to post this blog online, Kate Copstick turned up at 1.00am (we are sharing a flat) saying she is due to review highly-esteemed musical act Die Roten Punkte for the Scotsman tomorrow night (well, tonight, in fact) – their opening night – but British Airways have lost all their musical equipment collected over many years and a very, very specifically-designed drum kit.

“British Airways,” Copstick told me, “don’t seem very concerned”.

Meanwhile, Die Roten Punkte are trying to borrow equipment and have arranged an emergency technical run-through at 07.00am.

The Edinburgh Fringe. Home of dreams and nightmares.

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Going Pear Shaped: the last night of London’s second worst comedy club

(from left) Brian Damage, Vicky de Lacy & Anthony Miller last night

(L-R) Brian Damage, Vicky de Lacy, Anthony Miller last night

Last night, for the very last time, I went to Pear Shaped in Fitzrovia, the always fascinating (note the careful use of word there) weekly comedy club run, for the last 15 years by Brian Damage & Kryssstal (Vicky de Lacy) with Anthony Miller.

The club is closing because the Fitzroy Tavern pub and its basement are having a big refurbishment lasting, perhaps, a year. Well, OK, the story seems to be that, as part of the refurbishment, the club may be turned into a toilet. I pause while you make up your own joke.

“They’re closing down next month,” Brian Damage told me last night. “They do want us to come back, but that’s nine months away.”

“Have you got another venue?” I asked.

“We’ve found another one,” said Brian. “But nothing settled yet, so I’m saying nothing.”

“If you’re now free,” I said, “you can go to the Edinburgh Fringe in August.”

“I’d love – we’d love – to go up to the Fringe,” said Brian. “I miss it. But not running a venue – That’s a whole year of Read the first fucking e-mail I sent you!”

For years, Brian and Vicky used to run the Holyrood Tavern up at the Fringe, including the extraordinary Pear Shaped at Midnight shows where, whenever I went, there was no ‘real’ audience, merely acts watching other acts perform after their own shows had ended. Shows can often be better without an audience of punters. These shows were.

“You met Vicky at the Fringe, didn’t you?” I asked.

“Yes,” he told me, “I was asked to compere a show up there. We met and, one night, I was pissed and I said: We could run this fucking place, thinking it was easy. It wasn’t, of course. I didn’t know Vicky used to run theatres in Australia. I couldn’t run it, but she could.”

With Brian Damage & Vicky de Lacy in 2007

With Brian Damage and Vicky de Lacy in December 2007

“Where did you and I first meet?” I asked him. Memory is not my forte.

“On the Wibbley Wobbley,” he told me. “We ran the new act night there for Malcolm Hardee – we booked the acts.”

Look, it’s not my fault that conversation often turns to the late comic/ promoter/ club owner Malcolm Hardee. After running the infamous Tunnel club and the more respectable Up The Creek, he staged shows in Rotherhithe on a converted German barge, The Wibbley Wobbley.

“Malcolm was,” said Brian last night, “the opposite of all the bullshit and all the crap that enrages me. When I first started doing comedy, I loved a bit of bullshit.”

“And he didn’t?” I asked, surprised.

“Well now,” said Brian, “because of the fucking barrage of shit I have coming at me every single day on Facebook, all the arguing and the bollocks. I’ve got to the stage where I’m thinking I don’t care about any of it.”

“That’s age,” I suggested.

“Well, maybe it is,” said Brian. “But I just don’t care. The things that people are arguing about…  for fuck’s sake. They actually have discussions about Are women funny? Fuck off! I mean, Fuck off! It’s so rubbish.”

“Facebook somehow encourages it,” I said.

“I’m only on Facebook for business purposes,” said Brian. “Thank God I’m not on there as a human being. There’s so much shit coming at me, I’m fucked if I’m going to add to it. Fuck off!”

“The Queen,” I said, changing the subject, “may have to leave Buckingham Palace for six months while they refurbish it.”

“Yes, we could move in there for a few months,” Brian mused.

Last night, the Pear Shaped venue was full.

“Tonight is one of the few nights we’ve had an audience,” Brian told the audience. “I reckon what we should have done over the last 15 years was, every week, say CLOSING DOWN and I reckon that would’ve done the trick.”

Over the last 15 years, enormous numbers of starting-out comics have performed at Pear Shaped, which is billed as “London’s Second Worst Comedy Club”.

The worst one, Brian claims, was the one they ran before the current Pear Shaped. Well, current until last night.

Brian Damage & Anthony Miller read last rites

Brian Damage & Anthony Miller read last rites

One of the acts last night (I have tragically forgotten who) said that Brian & Krysstal’s next club will, by definition, be better because it will be London’s third worst comedy club.

Anthony Miller told the assembled throng: “You have to see it in perspective. The David Lean Cinema in Croydon has as many seats as this room and managed to lose half a million pounds in a year. So, compared to that, we’re slick.”

Malcolm Hardee Comedy Award winner Robert White apparently gave his first performance at Pear Shaped. He was there last night and gave Anthony Miller a farewell kiss. It seemed not to be appreciated.

As always, Brian Damage started the evening by singing the club’s theme song (to the tune of The Flintstones TV series):

Pear Shaped
This is Pear Shaped
Every Wednesday night at half past eight

Pear Shaped
This is Pear Shaped
Loads of comics you can love or hate

Pear Shaped
It’s just a fiver to come in
And we hope
You’ll both be coming back again
to
Pear Shaped
Up to Pear Shaped
Every Wednesday night at half past eight

At the end of the evening, he sang:

I don’t know where
I don’t know when
But it will
Happen again

Here’s hoping.

Brian Damage bids a fond farewell

Brian Damage bids a fond farewell

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Robert White: gay, dyslexic, quarter-Welsh, Aspergic, webbed-toed comic

Robert White, award-winning comedian with a record

Robert White sitting in a small room

“Sometimes people have tried to blame things on me because it’s easier to blame someone who may be presumed to have a reputation,” comedian Robert White told me yesterday.

Today, the British Journal of Psychiatry published a research study by Oxford University and the Berkshire Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust which suggests that “an unusual personality structure could be the secret to making other people laugh”.

Well Hump-de-dinki-doo!

I do not know how much this research study cost, but I could have done it cheaper for them.

Yesterday at London’s Soho Theatre, I bought one drink and got 44 minutes of similar insight from Robert White who is – correct me if I am wrong – the only gay, dyslexic, quarter-Welsh, Aspergic, webbed-toed comedian working on the UK comedy circuit. He also won the highly-coveted Malcolm Hardee Award for Comic Originality in 2010.

“In 2001, I was initially diagnosed as having Asperger Syndome by a psychologist when I went for depression,” Robert told me, “and it was like a light shining. It was like Wow! This is what my mind is thinking! and it cleared up so many things and, over the last few years, I’ve gradually got better.”

He has been performing comedy for ten years.

“Before comedy,” he told me, “I’d misunderstand things and, one time, that led to a practical joke that the police mis-translated as a crime and, as such, I got three months in Wandsworth Prison.”

“What was the practical joke?” I asked.

“Dressing up in a ballgown and walking down the street with a music stand. I was going to go into the shop where my ex-boyfriend worked and I was going to say to him: Music stand and deliver!

“But I didn’t do it. I stopped in the street, walked home and, as I did so, I walked in front of a police car and they asked me what I was doing and told me past intent to do something was the same as present intent to do something and, just because I’d rescinded and hadn’t done it, I was still culpable.”

“What’s illegal,” I asked, “about saying Music stand and deliver to someone while holding a music stand?”

“Well,” said Robert, “initially they were going to charge me with armed robbery but, on a plea bargain, they brought it down to attempting to threaten with an imitation firearm.”

“Ah! You didn’t mention the imitation firearm,” I pointed out.

“Well,” replied Robert. “It wasn’t. It was a music stand.”

“How was that an imitation firearm?” I asked.

“Because,” explained Robert, “in the police interview, I called it a gun because – for the joke – I was a comedy armed robber. I had originally been going to say Hand over the notes – you know – it was a music stand – Hand over the notes – but then I decided I was going to say Music stand and deliver.

“When I was in Wandsworth Prison, I was in the remand wing. One of the ways I deal with depression is to write music and they didn’t have paper or pen. So, by spreading toothpaste on a piece of newspaper and pulling my finger through it, I was writing a symphony.

“A guard came up to me and said What are you doing? and I said I’m writing a symphony and they put me in the mental wing of Wandsworth Prison, which is where all the hard nutters are. My solicitor came to me and said Either we can try and explain this in front of a jury or we can take a plea bargain. If you explain it in front of a jury, you may get seven years because they won’t understand you. A plea bargain? Three months.

“Incidents like that used to happen but comedy has cured me – well, not cured me, but it has resolved many, many issues.”

Robert White with Kate Copstick in 2010, after he won the highly-coveted Malcolm Hardee Award for Comic Originality

Robert White with Kate Copstick in 2010, after he won the highly-coveted Malcolm Hardee Award for Comic Originality

This year, Robert intends to return to the Edinburgh Fringe for the first time since he won the highly-coveted Malcolm Hardee Award For Comic Originality in 2010. His new show will be about having Asperger Syndome.

“Last time I was at the Fringe,” he told me, “I won the Malcolm Hardee Award, I had one of the Top Ten jokes, I got loads of 4-star reviews and people were raving about me and I got one zero-star review which, at the time, I blamed on Asperger’s but the truth was it was a gig on the day of my father’s birthday a month after he died of cancer and I was feeling horrific.”

“This was the review on the Chortle website?” I asked.

“Yes,” said Robert. “Basically, I started, played the trumpet and – before I even said anything – I ran off, because my head was full of a million different things. Yes, it was wrong. Maybe other people would have cancelled the show.”

“And your new show is about having Asperger’s,” I asked.

“Yes. About fitting in. Most people might think I’m a bit odd. Before comedy, I’d fallen out with my family, I’d been in an abusive relationship, I couldn’t go into places on my own and I constantly got fired from jobs – 36 jobs in seven years. Everything from telesales through to being a music teacher.

“Once, I was at work and I was trying to do something clever with my pay and the manager said to me: Are you trying to be clever? and I said Yes and I got fired.

“Another time, there was this list of things you could not do at a call centre and it was such a specific list that I noticed it did not state that you couldn’t answer the phone wearing a Gareth Gates face mask. So I put on a Gareth Gates mask and got fired.

Comedy makes Robert feel he fits in

“Comedy makes me feel I fit in” says a reflective Robert White

“Performing comedy makes me feel I fit in. The problem is that, because I don’t understand social relationships, sometimes I can go a bit wobbly.

“Once, when I was sent to my room as a kid and I thought that was wrong, I sat in my room for ages, then dressed up my large cuddly toy panda in my own clothes and chucked it out the window. So, when it went plunging past the window where my mum was having dinner, she thought I had committed suicide. Which was quite funny but also quite horrific.”

“When you say you might go a bit wobbly, does that affect your performance?” I asked.

“Not any more,” said Robert. “But, because my mind is built up of facts – that’s the way I see the world – if my mind is thinking quickly and lots of facts present themselves, they just over-take my head because there’s too much to think about.”

“So your brain seizes up?” I asked.

“Not any more,” said Robert. “Because now I have various ways of overcoming it. The way you compensate for not having instinctive understanding is learned responses: a sort of cognitive behavioural therapy. That’s happened before, therefore this will happen now.

“Before I go on stage, I write various things on my hand. I write CAN DIE on my hand, because you don’t want to get complacent because that’s the time when you do die. I write YOU’RE BEST THIS GIG which makes me focus on how I do at this one gig.

“So I have certain rules written down. One of the rules is KEEP ON. JUST DO. I’ve got the word SWEAR written on one finger because, in some gigs, the C word is not appropriate and I’ve got NO MENTAL written on my hand to tell me not to go mental.

“I have to input facts into my head before I start the gig. Then I’ve got facts about the audience. All these facts are building up in my head before I go on and that is how I build up a picture of the world.

Robert White looks ahead to a hopefully brighter future

Robert White looks ahead to a hopefully even brighter future

“I’m also very good at improvisation. I can make up songs 1-5 minutes long about what’s happening in the moment. You can get riotous responses from making something that’s in the moment. I played the trumpet when I was a teenager, I was a jazz improviser, so I’ve got a memory for remembering little licks. I’ve got a mind that can remember little snippets, then repeat them in different orders as appropriate.

“My comedy over the last ten years has been filling-in the fuck-up of my life – the hole which the previous years have been. I feel I’ve now made a foundation and I’m building on that now. I still am autistic and occasionally my mind will be wobbly, but now I can deal with it much better. I think this year will be very positive. I’ve got my head together.”

__________________________________________________

In 2010, panel judge Kate Copstick interviewed Robert White after he won the Malcolm Hardee Award for Comic Originality, presented by Simon Munnery. There is a clip on YouTube.

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The Kray Twins have been replaced by a bunch of comedians in the East End

What is happening with Bethnal Green in the East End of London?

I think of Bethnal Green as being the home of the Kray Twins and the Museum of Childhood. Admittedly queer bedfellows to begin with. Now there appears to be a giggle gulag of recently-opened clubs featuring new and rising comedians.

On Mondays, David Mills and Maureen Younger run their Unusual Suspects comedy club at the Sebright Arms.

On Tuesdays, comedian Oli (son of comedian Janet) Bettesworth runs The Painted Grin at Benny’s Bar.

And another comedian I know is also thinking of starting a new monthly club in Bethnal Green.

In the sometimes bitchy world of comedy, it all seems surprisingly chummy down the East End.

Last week, I went to the Unusual Suspects to see 2010 Malcolm Hardee Award winner Robert White (whose comedy is so fast it must leave scorch marks on his brain) and David Mills & Scott Capurro (who hosted this year’s Malcolm Hardee Awards at the Edinburgh Fringe). In the audience, was Janet Bettesworth. Not only that, but she raved to me afterwards about the end chat between David and Scott.

Comedy can be about more than just getting laughs, which Scott and David proved in their Scott Capurro’s Position chat show in Edinburgh and at the Soho Theatre this year – and very much so in what appeared to be their totally improvised, highly libelous and astonishingly personal routine last Monday. In fact, it was more an extended riff than comedy routine – very insightful and very funny.

Janet Bettesworth reckons: “The hundreds of comedy nights around town are perhaps just a stress-release valve for overworked Londoners. However, take two seasoned gay American comedians, David Mills and Scott Capurro and you get some kind of magic.

“Some kind of magic is certainly what took place last Monday,” she says. “Suddenly mere stand up comedy (more specifically one-liner gags) seemed flat and one-dimensional in comparison. The tete-a-tete between the two of them was one of the rarest and best things I have ever seen. I wished it had gone on longer. No-one recorded it, so an ephemeral happening, perhaps born out of adversity (a scheduled act had been called elsewhere) and delivered to a small and privileged audience is lost forever. It is impossible to describe, except to suggest that together they are (even) more than the sum of their parts – they presented something extraordinarily real and multi-dimensional, full of rawness, pain, tenderness, love, wit and finely-distilled camp humour.”

It certainly was an astonishing public tete-a-tete.

And there is certainly some exceptional live comedy going on out there in small clubs – a lot of it, apparently, now oddly happening in Bethnal Green – all of it ephemeral, unrecorded and, like most of the best comedy, once performed lost forever.

In the Kray Twins’ era, it was criminal lawyers who reaped the benefit.

In modern-day Bethnal Green it might be comedy club audiences and libel lawyers.

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Has British comedy stagnated since Monty Python, Hardee and Tiswas?

Beware. This is my blog. These are my very highly personal opinions. You can object. Please do.

People have said Alternative Comedy is not dead, it has just ceased to be Alternative. It has become the Mainstream. But they seldom talk about the next new wave of British comedians who will replace the now mainstream Alternative Comedians.

I desperately want to spot any new wave for the annual Malcolm Hardee Awards, which I organise. Our avowed intent is to try to find “comic originality”.

We do find admirably quirky individuals to award the main annual Comic Originality prize to – last year, the one-off Robert White; this year, the one-off Johnny Sorrow.

And their one-offness is as it should be. You cannot have comic originality if 37 other people are doing something similar.

But where are the new style comedians performing a recognisable new type of comedy genre? There has not been anything overwhelmingly new since so-called Alternative Comedy arrived in the mid-1980s – over 25 years ago.

As far as I can see, there have been four very rough waves of post-War British comedy, most of them comprising overlapping double strands.

The first double wave of ‘new’ comics in the 1950s were reacting partly to stuffy mainstream 1930s Reithian radio comedy, partly to the necessary order of the 1940s wartime years and partly they were rebelling against the dying music hall circuit epitomised by John Osborne‘s fictional but iconic Archie Rice in The Entertainer (1957).

The Goon Show (1951-1960) on BBC Radio, at the height of its popularity in the mid 1950s, was the antithesis of the ‘old school’ of pre-War comedy. The Goons were a surreal comic equivalent to John Osborne’s own rebellious Look Back in Anger (1956) and the kitchen sink realism which surfaced in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Osborne was ultra-realistic; The Goons were ultra-surreal.

But Osborne’s plays and The Goons‘ radio comedy were both reactions to the rigidly ordered society in pre-War, wartime and immediately post-War Britain and The Goons‘ new anarchic style of comedy (although it owes some debt to the pre-War Crazy Gang and although the Wartime radio series ITMA was slightly surreal) really was like the new rock ‘n’ roll (which was not coincidentally happening simultaneously). It was startlingly new. They were consciously rebelling and revolting against a clear status quo which they saw as stuffy and restrictive.

Hot on the heels of The Goons came a different form of rebellion – the satirists of the 1960s – with Beyond the Fringe (1960) on stage and That Was The Week That Was (1962-1963) on TV. These two slightly overlapping Second Waves of new post-War British comedy were again reacting to a stuffy status quo.

The First Wave, the surrealist Goons wave, then reasserted that it was still rolling on when a Third Wave of influence – Monty Python’s Flying Circus – appeared on BBC TV 1969-1974 and – as satire declined in the 1970s – it was Monty Python‘s (and, ultimately, The Goons‘) comedic gene pool that held sway for a while – also epitomised, oddly, by the children’s TV show – Tiswas (1974-1982).

The Goons, Beyond The Fringe and That Was The Week That Was had been rebelling against something; Monty Python was surreal and Tiswas was anarchic just for the sheer sake of it. Monty Python and Tiswas were one-offs, but they have pale imitations trundling on even to today.

After Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister in 1979, a Fourth Wave of new comics arose in the early and mid-1980s – a generation influenced by the satire gene not by the Goons/Python gene. These mostly-university-educated young left wing things rebelled against Thatcherism with their often political-based humour which became known as Alternative Comedy.

But again, just as there had been a second overlapping wave of comedy in the previous generation, this mostly ‘serious’ comedy was paralleled by a different wave possibly more low-key but epitomised by the decidedly fringe appeal of the hugely influential Malcolm Hardee, whose release from prison and subsequent comedy career coincided with the start of and overlapped with the future stars of Alternative Comedy.

Malcolm’s strand of mostly non-political comedy was spread by the clubs he ran and the acts he managed, agented, booked and/or nurtured: acts including the young Paul Merton (performing as Paul Martin when Malcolm first managed him), Jenny Eclair and later Keith Allen, Harry Enfield, Harry Hill, Vic Reeves, Jerry Sadowitz, Jim Tavaré and Johnny Vegas.

While London’s Comedy Store nurtured future mainstream acts (some progressing there from Malcolm’s clubs), the more bizarre and original new acts continued to flock to Malcolm’s gigs and clubs including his near-legendary Sunday Night at the Tunnel Palladium gigs and later his lower-key but just as influential Up The Creek club.

These two strands of 1980s comedy – the alternative political and the Hardee-esque – successfully came together in a Channel 4 programme – not, as is often cited, Saturday Live (1985-1987), a mostly failed hotch-potch with different presenters every week, but its long-remembered successor, Geoff Posner‘s Friday Night Live (1988) which supposedly firebrand political polemic comic Ben Elton presented every week in what was supposed to be an ironic sparkly showbiz jacket.

Political alternative stand-ups mixed with strange variety and character acts, oddball comics and cross-over acts like Jo Brand, Jenny Eclair, Harry Enfield and many others nurtured by Malcolm Hardee.

This was both the highpoint and the start of the decline of Alternative Comedy because serious money was spent on the relatively low-rating Saturday Live and Friday Night Live on Channel 4, both ultimately shepherded by Alan Boyd’s resolutely mainstream but highly influential Entertainment Department at LWT.

Since then, where has the next giant New Wave of British comedy been? There are random outbreaks of originality, but mostly there has been a barren mediocrity of pale imitations of previous waves – and the desolate, mostly laugh-free zone that is BBC3.

At this point, allow me an even more personal view.

I thought I spotted a change in Edinburgh Fringe comedy shows around 2003 when Janey Godley was barred from consideration for the Perrier Award (despite a very lively verbal fight among the judging the panel) because it was decided that her seminal show Caught in the Act of Being Myself did not fall within the remit of the Awards because it was not a single ‘show’ repeated every night: she was basically ad-libbing a different hour of comedy every performance for 28 consecutive nights.

That same year, Mike Gunn performed his confessional heroin-addict show Mike Gunn: Uncut at the Fringe although, unlike Janey, he lightened and held back some of the more serious details of his life story.

It seemed to me that, certainly after 2004, when Janey performed her confessional show Good Godley!,  Fringe shows started an increasing tendency towards often confessional autobiographical storytelling. Good Godley! was one of the first hour-long comedy shows at the Fringe (though not the only one) to use material that was not in any way funny – in that case, child abuse, rape, murder and extreme emotional damage. Janey did not tell funny stories; she told stories funny. Viewed objectively, almost nothing she actually talked about was funny but audiences fell about laughing because it truly was “the way she told ’em”.

Since then, too, there seems to have been a tendency towards improvisation, probably spurred by the financial success of Ross Noble and Eddie Izzard. The traditional 1980s Alternative Comics still mostly stay to a script. The 21st Century comics influenced by Janey Godley, Eddie Izzard and Ross Noble often do not (to varying degrees).

So it could be argued there has been a tendency in this decade away from gag-telling (apart from the brilliant Jimmy Carr, Milton Jones and Tim Vine) towards storytelling… and a tendency towards improvisational gigs (bastardised by the almost entirely scripted and prepared ad-libs on TV panel shows).

But long-form storytelling does not fit comfortably into TV formats which tend to require short-form, gag-based, almost sound-bite material – you cannot tell long involved stories on panel shows and on Michael McIntyre’s Comedy Roadshow type programmes. So a tendency in live gigs and certainly at the Edinburgh Fringe – a tendency away from gag-based comedy to storytelling comedy – has been unable to transfer to television and has therefore not fully developed.

Occasionally, a Fifth Wave of British comedy is sighted on the horizon but, so far, all sightings have turned out to be tantalising mirages.

One possibility are the Kent Comics who all studied Stand Up Comedy as an academic subject in the University of Kent at Canterbury. They include Pappy’s aka Pappy’s Fun Club, Tiernan Douieb, Jimmy McGhie, Laura Lexx and The Noise Next Door. But they share an origin, not a style.

Whither British comedy?

Who knows?

Not me.

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