Tag Archives: Robert Wringham

A bit of a chat with Robert Wringham – Part 1 – The Stern Plastic Owl man…

Robert Wringham describes himself as a ‘humorist’… His latest book is 2021’s Stern Plastic Owl.

His first book, in 2012, was You Are Nothing (about Simon Munnery, Stewart Lee et al’s comedy show Cluub Zarathustra).

After that, he wrote A Loose Egg (2014), which was shortlisted for Canada’s 2015 Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour.

His 2016 book Escape Everything! was a spin-off from the New Escapologist, a lifestyle magazine he edited and published 2007-2017 and which continues as a series of online essays. New Escapologist describes itself as “the journal of the art of getting out of things” and suggests that “work has too central a position in Western life”.

Escape Everything! was successful enough to be translated into German and released in Germany, Austria and Switzerland as Ich Bin Raus and then, in 2018, in South Korea as [] 탈출하라. No doubt to further confuse readers, it was also republished in the UK in 2021 in English as I’m Out: How To Make an Exit.

Meanwhile, in 2020, in English, Robert had written The Good Life For Wage Slaves, which was re-published in Germany as Das gute Leben.

He had also written a regular column 2016-2020 in The Idler, a magazine whose declared aim is to “return dignity to the art of loafing” and had written for a variety of other esteemed outlets including Meat, The Skinny, the British Comedy Guide, Playboy etc etc etc.

Obviously, I had to have a chat with Robert.

It would have been churlish not to.

He lives in Glasgow and Montreal (his partner is Canadian), so we talked via FaceTime.


JOHN: You have said: “The highest form of human activity is the shenanigan”…

ROBERT: It makes sense, right? What could be better than a mischievous, spontaneous act?

JOHN: ARE you a mischievous, spontaneous act?

ROBERT: That’s what I aspire to.

JOHN: You describe yourself ‘a humorist’.

ROBERT: There’s a thing on Wikipedia at the moment about the definition of ‘humorist’ which says it’s “an intellectual who uses comedy to get his or her point across”. And that nails it for me. I don’t want to think of myself as an intellectual, but I do like the idea that I’m trying to communicate a ‘point’ packaged nicely with humour, so you can get inside somebody. It’s the sugar pill, right?

“I think it’s to do with anti-pigeon…”

JOHN: Why is your latest book called Stern Plastic Owl?

ROBERT: That’s a theme. My previous similar miscellany book was called A Loose Egg because I got hung up on that phase “a loose egg”. It came about by accident, because there was a loose egg in our fridge back in Canada.

Stern Plastic Owl is a random phrase too. Like all comedians and writers, I have a notebook nearby at all times, including by my bed. There is an idea that sleeping should be when your fertile ideas come up although, really, what I write down in the night is gibberish. But it feels like it’s a resource I should use and one of the phrases that stood out was Stern Plastic Owl. I didn’t know what it meant.

So there is a story in the book where I try to work out what it means. It’s kind of a detective story in the middle of the book.

JOHN: So did you find out what it means?

ROBERT: Not exactly. But I think it’s to do with anti-pigeon, do you know what I mean?

JOHN: No.

ROBERT: An anti-pigeon device. You’ve got an owl and you put it up on your roof to scare pigeons away. There’s one nearby and I think I must have seen that and it came back to me in a dream. So I tried my best to write a piece around one of those stern plastic anti-pigeon owls.

JOHN: I’ve never heard of this before. Are you telling me, if I come up to Glasgow there are fake owls on window sills and roofs all over the place.

ROBERT: They’re everywhere.

JOHN: You were a stand-up comic.

“I never got a horrible heckle ever…”

ROBERT: One of the very brief things from my very brief stand-up period was my come-back to hecklers: “Sir, you cannot count the number of cylinders I’m firing on”. I’m still happy with that. I never got to use it, but it was just there on standby. I never got a horrible heckle ever.

JOHN: You were too loveable?

ROBERT: Probably too young. A lot of audiences are just polite if you look very young.

JOHN: Why did you give up stand-up?

ROBERT: My favourite thing was writing the jokes and fine-tuning them. The hardest part was making it sound good, sound spontaneous. I didn’t enjoy the late nights or the Green Room badinage. I have met a lot of wonderful comedians in Green Rooms but I never felt I was holding my own in those conversations.

JOHN: You wrote that one great climb-down of your life was “pointing your imagination in the direction of writing rather than performance”.

ROBERT: Well, that’s not really true. That’s just what I put in the book. It didn’t really feel like a climb-down. I just didn’t want to tell the story in the other direction which was I was travelling in a favourable direction to the thing I wanted to do. I didn’t think there was any comedy in saying that.

JOHN: Is it a book full of lies? Like comedy routines?

ROBERT: Oh completely. The idea of what is true is something that is always on my mind a lot. For example, my real name is not Wringham. My actual passport name is Westwood. Robert Westwood.

 I wanted to change my name and be a persona. So, when I’m on the page or on the stage, it’s a separate thing. 

JOHN: Why Wringham?

Agraman aka The Human Anagram, John Marshall, c2018

ROBERT: I was always entertained by people like The Human Anagram (aka Agraman aka John Marshall) in the 1980s, but I wanted to do something else. I like horror novels and there’s one called The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner.

 It’s of the age of Frankenstein, but it’s Scottish and I think that’s why no-one has given a shit about it and it’s unjustifiably obscure. The villain in that is called Robert Wringham.

So, when I moved to Scotland, I thought: I’m taking that name! It’s sort of similar to mine and the thing about that book is it’s about doppelgängers. So I thought: My persona is going to be my evil twin. He’s going to do the stuff that I don’t do in real life.

(… CONTINUED HERE … )

Robert’s books have been published in the UK, Germany, Austria, Switzerland and South Korea

 

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Filed under Books, Humor, Humour, Surreal

More stories of comedians using other comedians’ lines – OK – stealing things

Picture of Ian MacPherson used without his permission from his website http://www.ianmacpherson.net

Picture of Ian MacPherson used without his permission or his knowledge from his website www.ianmacpherson.net

Yesterday, I blogged about Martin Soan’s version of how his late friend Malcolm Hardee appropriated – well, OK, stole – fellow comic Ian MacPherson’s gag.

The gag was to open your performance at a venue by saying:

“In show business, there’s a saying that you play (enter name of venue) twice in your career. Once on the way up. Once on the way down. (PAUSE) It’s good to be back…”

Martin Soan had heard (from Malcolm Hardee) that Ian McPherson had jokingly asked to be paid when Malcolm stole the gag and Malcolm had – much to Ian’s shock – actually paid several hundred pounds.

When he read yesterday’s blog, comedian Rob Thomas told me that a different version of what had happened was published in the British Comedy Guide in 2008, in an excellent piece by Robert Wringham.

I contacted Robert and asked him if he was happy with me quoting from his piece. “Is there anything you want plugged?” I added.

“You could mention my little book about Cluub Zarathustra,” he told me. “You helped out on that, I’m certain. I know I quote you in it.”

This surprised me because, in fact, I had nothing to do with either the book or with Simon Munnery’s show Cluub Zarathustra beyond seeing and immensely enjoying it at the 1999 Edinburgh Fringe. It is a fascinating show which was turned into a BBC2 TV series Attention Scum! directed by Stewart Lee in 2001.

The BBC have never released a DVD, but there are clips on YouTube.

BBC executives never liked the series and hid it away on BBC2 on Sunday nights at 11.50pm. They cancelled the series which was then – embarrassingly for them – nominated for the Golden Rose of Montreux as best TV entertainment show of the year. As I understand it, BBC executives then had to fly with Simon Munnery to Switzerland and sing the praises of the series which they had cancelled because they hated it.

There is almost a sitcom in that saga in itself.

But back to Ian McPherson and the gag theft by Malcolm Hardee.

In Robert Wringham’s 2008 piece in the British Comedy Guide, Ian said he first did the gag in the early 1980s at the Earth Exchange, a tiny vegetarian comedy club on the Archway Road in London.

Later, Malcolm nicked the gag, much to Ian’s annoyance.

Malcolm with distressed shoulder in Up The Creek office

Malcolm with distressed shoulder in his Up The Creek office (Photograph by my eternally-un-named friend)

“And,” Ian told Robert Wringham, “as he’d done it on some pap-for-the-masses TV programme, it looked as if I’d nicked it off him. So I had to drop it. He also put about that he’d bought it from me. Which he hadn’t. He then offered to buy it retrospectively. Fuck off, Malcolm, I quipped. So I fined him a pretty modest sum for theft. I was pretty furious about it at the time, but he had his eye on other stuff I’d written, so I was also warning him off. He ignored the fine at first, but he was just about to open (his own club) Up The Creek, so I gather some comedians refused to play there till he paid up. Which he grudgingly did. I also made it plain in words of one syllable that I was not, repeat not, selling the line. He muttered something about 6 seconds of material but, as I pointed out, It was 7 and a half seconds, Malcolm. You should have nicked my timing.

“Simon Munnery told me he does it too, but attributes it to me. Which is fine. No problem there. Good man Simon. I was told that Simon Fanshawe did it on radio. No attribution. I wrote to his agent at Noel Gay Artists three years ago for a clarification but he must be a slow typist. No response as yet. But not everyone is called Simon.

“A young film maker contacted me last month. Apparently he’s doing a documentary on Malcolm Hardee. Wanted to know if I wrote Malcolm’s gag. Malcolm’s? Apparently some of the older comedians who’d first seen me do it had told him it was mine. Anyway, he intimated they would be using the TV clip of Malcolm doing my gag and, er, was I okay with that. And maybe it was the Irish blood coursing through my veins, but my response was a good deal less than civil. Listen, I said. You people stole my country. I’m fucked if you’re nicking my act. Does that answer your question?

All those quotes from Ian have been stolen by me from Robert Wringham’s original article in the British Comedy Guide.

Well, not really stolen. I look on my use of them as an homage to Robert’s work and I recommend you buy his book on Cluub Zarathustra, a show that deserves to be remembered.

Robert Wringham’s assuredly excellent book which I have not read but buy it…

Robert Wringham’s assuredly excellent book which I have not read… But buy it

As a post-script to this tale of joke theft, I should also mention that juggler Steve Rawlings, who often played Malcolm Hardee’s clubs, also got in touch with me yesterday after reading my blog.

It is a widely-read blog and has probably had bits repeated from it without attribution.

Malcolm Hardee had handfuls of oft-repeated catchphrases. He used one of them to put-down anyone unwise enough to heckle him. He would say: “Isn’t it a shame when cousins marry?”

Yesterday, Steve Rawlings told me: “He got that line from me. I’d got it from a big-headed American juggler who was doing put-down lines on the other acts while we were sat drinking before a gig.

“He came out with three when I was sat alone with him.

“One was the when cousins marry line.

“One was It’s hard to believe out of millions of sperm you were quick enough to get there first.

“And the last was Living proof that Indians DID fuck buffalo, which was never going to work in England.

“I had the first two lines to myself for about two months and they were killing.

“Then Malcolm phoned me and said: Oy oy – Is that ‘when cousins marry’ line yours?

“I said: No, I nicked it off this American act.

“He said Oy oy again and hung up.

“Not long after that, everyone was using it. But for just a little while I had it to myself.”

I did ask Ian McPherson yesterday if there was anything he wanted to add to his British Comedy Guide tale of Malcolm stealing his opening routine. He said: “Say hello to Martin Soan and Steve Bowditch. Lovely, lovely boys and a credit to their respective mothers.”

Both are members of The Greatest Show On Legs which included Malcolm before he drowned and both are currently performing in Switzerland, where BBC TV executives had to smile and accept compliments for Simon Munnery’s cancelled series Attention Scum!

What the relevance of that is, I have no idea, but it sounds good – something which should never be underestimated.

Here is a YouTube clip of Steve Rawlings juggling.

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Filed under Comedy, Humor, Humour, UK