Tag Archives: sitcoms

The decline of British television comedy. The elitist iceberg of Brexit and Trump.

The Grouchy Club Podcast

Below is a short extract from the 100th Grouchy Club Podcast in which the (yes she certainly is) controversial comedy critic Kate Copstick and I ramble on about anything that takes our fancy, occasionally stumbling into the subject of British comedy. Occasionally, too, we stumble into cyber-trouble.

This may be one such example.


JOHN: There is a sort of bizarre snootiness in comedy where the Oxbridge elite…

COPSTICK: Oh yes…

JOHN: …who, by-and-large, don’t get (big) ratings for their shows – are very snooty about people who do get ratings. For example, Benny Hill.

COPSTICK: Yep…

JOHN: …who at the height – the height – of his fame and his ratings success and his foreign sales for Thames Television – He must have been churning money out like nobody’s business for Thames Television – was dragged into – was it Brian Tesler’s office? Someone’s office… and told they were getting rid of him because he was in bad taste.

COPSTICK: Yes, yes.

JOHN: He was staggeringly popular. I heard that when he died – I dunno if this is an urban myth – Chinese television broke into their broadcasts to announce it as a newsflash.

COPSTICK: I’m sure that’s absolutely true.

JOHN: But I mean he was staggeringly popular. They didn’t like him because they said he was sexist.

COPSTICK: But I think that… I’m going to get a bit political here, John…

JOHN: Oh God! We’re going to be in trouble!

COPSTICK: Only mildly…

JOHN: Oh dear.

COPSTICK: …and fleetingly.

JOHN: Oh dear.

COPSTICK: Just fleetingly.

JOHN: That’s never stopped her before.

COPSTICK: I think that is exactly the same thing – talking about the Oxbridge elite and all that running TV, so they say what gets dumped because they don’t like it – They are the ones whose voices are out there but Benny Hill had gazillions of viewers – I think that’s exactly the same thing we got with Brexit and the Trump vote – because the people at the top…

JOHN: This is Copstick!

COPSTICK: …the people at the top are completely unrepresentative of the mass of the voting iceberg that is underwater. And somehow, when the bottom mass of the iceberg rises up and votes for Brexit or Trump, it’s all Oh! Shock! Horror! How can this have happened? Well, it happened because it was always there. You just weren’t listening to it.

JOHN: Also, I was talking to someone the other day and said that, in my erstwhile youth, when they had sitcoms, they used to have them on at 8 o’clock or 8.30 at night or 7.30 at night. Nowadays, sitcoms are on at 10.30 or 11.00…

COPSTICK: Yes, yes.

JOHN: … because, in my youth, the sitcoms got massive ratings and now the humour, the comedy is not getting big ratings because it’s being scheduled and programmed and decided on by people who don’t like what the public like.

COPSTICK: Which is why Mrs Brown’s Boys is the highest rated…

JOHN: Yes and that’s only on at 10.30 because he keeps saying Feckin’ or something, doesn’t he?

COPSTICK: People are very snotty about it: Ooh! Mrs Brown’s Boys!

JOHN: I saw one episode and thought: Oh, that’s not really for me. But, of its type, it’s well done. I mean, Mrs Brown’s Boys and My Family must be, recently, the biggest sitcoms on…

COPSTICK: Absolutely. And surely somebody somewhere in some television company must see that.

JOHN: There is a lot of Emperor’s New Clothes going around.

COPSTICK: Ooh!

JOHN: I have to say Vic & Bob – sorry – I never ever thought they were funny. There was one pilot for, I think, Granada, which I saw and liked: it never got made into a series because no-one else liked it, but I have never ever ever thought Vic & Bob were funny. They were always in minority slots and, when the BBC I think it was tried them at peak time on a Saturday night they came a phenomenal cropper. With good reason. Because they ain’t funny… (LAUGHS) …in my populist opinion! (LAUGHS) But what do I know?

COPSTICK: I have almost stopped watching comedy on TV because there is very little that appeals to me and makes me laugh.

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

Will Franken

Will – raising the dead – using sketch comedy

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

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

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

“Who is this aimed at?” I asked Will.

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

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

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

“Love characters,” he replied.

“Hiding behind them?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alan Bennett in 1973 (Photograph by Allan Warren)

Playwright Alan Bennett photographed in 1973 by Allan Warren

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

“And your character?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“When did you start doing them?”

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

Will Franken

Will Franken randomly approaches podcasts like a symphony

“What’s the podcast called?”

Things We Did Before Reality.”

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

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

“Is it weekly?”

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

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

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

“Indecision or perfection?” I asked.

“I think it’s perfectionism.”

“So they are released randomly?” I asked.

“Very randomly, yeah.”

“And you’ve just done one?”

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

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


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

 

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Hell created by half of a comedy duo, a rollerskating pop star & 108 Jaffa Cakes

Rich rose - the man who put the lit into clitoris

Rich Rose. The Man who put the lit into clitoris

So I got an email from Rich Rose of comedy duo Ellis & Rose.

“A friend of mine and I,” it said, “have written the pilot for a sitcom. It’s called Hell and is set in a grubby Soho sex shop. It’s being filmed from 5th-9th January at 3 Mills Studios and we were wondering if you would like to pay a visit to the set.”

So that was why, yesterday afternoon, I was in East London surrounded by dildos and accidentally walked through a vagina.

“It’s a full-length 25 minute sitcom pilot,” Rich told me yesterday, “divided down into five 5-minute webisodes which we are going to put online this summer.”

“So five climaxes,” I said.

Rich looked at me and said nothing.

“And potentially a series,” said Rich’s friend and co-writer David Ralf.

“Are you both appearing in Hitchcock-type cameos?” I asked.

“David’s cameo,” explained Rich, “is him standing in the shop scratching his nuts in a tracksuit.”

“So good clean stuff,” I said.

“In it’s current incarnation,” said David, “I’m not sure that any mainstream television studio would, eh…”

The crew look at a playback on the first day’s shooting

The crew look at a playback during the first day’s shooting

Ofcom would shit a brick,” said Rich.

“Are you going to have any nudity?” I asked hopefully.

“There’s a lot of doll nudity,” David told me. “I’m not sure how doll nudity goes over.”

“And you walked through the giant vulva,” Rich added.

“I did?” I asked, surprised.

“The curtains,” explained David.

“I feel soiled,” I said. “If you want vaginas, you want Martin Soan, supplier of large scale vaginas to stage and screen. Some of them sing.”

“Really?” asked Rich.

“Really,” I told him. “So what’s the plot of Hell?”

“A hopeless romantic,” explained David, “finds himself working in a Soho sex shop, a grubby little den which is subject to all the pressures and changes in the area. And he embarks upon a sexual odyssey.”

“Well,” said Rich, “he is forcefully coerced into a sexual odyssey by the assistant manager of Hell.”

“The message is very wholesome,” said David.

“No it isn’t,” said Rich.

“Yes it is,” said David.

11889691_10153688371917652_8095588971395795554_n“So what’s the message?” Rich asked.

“Well,” replied David, “what does the central character learn at the end?”

“Don’t slip on lube?” suggested Rich.

“I think,” said David, “we may have taken different things away from this whole writing process.”

“What do you think the message is?” I asked David.

“The central character learns about himself. He is a very repressed individual and his only outlet for intimacy is idealised rom-com romance and I think he learns about other ways to express himself.”

“Also,” added Rich, “there are loads of dildos. Try to emphasise that, John. Loads of dildos.

“Yes,” agreed David, “maybe go with that.”

“You crowdfunded it,” I said.

“We assumed we could make it for £8,000,” said Rich.

“Which we raised,” said David. “Then we went to Koto Films who raised more and now the budget is more than twice that, with Jack Plummer of Koto Films directing. We are doing it at a level that I think has surprised us. A higher quality level. A huge number of people have given a huge amount of time and energy.”

Producer Holly Harris with writer David Ralf

Producer Holly Harris with writer David Ralf

Producer Holly Harris of Koto Films told me: “A friend of a friend has lent us some fetish wear she collects. So many of our props are quite expensive and we just would not have been able to get such an amazing variety of different things on set if it wasn’t for her generosity.”

“How – indeed, why –  did you come up with the idea?” I asked Rich. “Just because sex always sells?”

“I thought of it,” he told me, “when I was leaving university in 2011. I was being driven home back to Purley and we passed a sex shop in quite a pleasant suburban area – not in Purley. My initial thought was How funny would it be to do a sitcom set in a sex shop in a leafy, cheery, suburban area? But that didn’t really work.”

“When we first worked on the script together,” explained David, “the shops we went to – for research purposes, of course – were all in Soho.”

“We had to visit many, many shops,” explained Rich. “We are professionals.”

Development - Hell went through many script changes

Development. Hell had many script changes

“And then,” said David, “we gave Koto Films what now turns out to have been a very, very early draft.”

“It’s been taken apart and put back together again,” said Rich.

“And Koto have made it look much better than we ever imagined it,” added David.

“And the crew?” I asked.

“It was amazing,” Holly Harris told me, “to see so many people come out of the woodwork who have some kind of relationship with the adult industry. Our art director’s mother is a sex therapist who spent 18 months in Spain running a strip club. Our construction managers are also drag queens.”

“And the central female character?” I asked.

“Is Crystal Hart, the manager of the shop,” David told me. “She is an ex-pornstar turned small-business woman.”

“Played by?” I asked.

Saffron Sprackling,” said David, “who fronted the 199os band Republica. She was and is an actress. She was in Starlight Express.

“So she can roller-skate,” I said.

“Yes,” said David. “This morning she was telling me about rollerskating around Soho in the old days.”

“In the streets of Soho?” I asked.

“Yes. She knew people who owned exactly the sort of shops we are portraying in the show and they used to have police among their clientele. But the police had to raid the shops every now and then, to keep up appearances. So they would ring ahead whenever they were going to raid the shop and Saffron would leave the theatre where she was performing Starlight Express, pick up a bag which she assumed was full of cash and held on to it until they gave the all clear and then she returned it to the shop. Hence the roller-skates.”

“So she roller-skated through the streets of Soho?” I asked.

“I believe so,” said David.

“Saffron has a very strong gay and lesbian following,” Holly told me.

one of the most important items in the production...

Dissected: One of the most important parts of the production

“I will have to get more Jaffa Cakes,” David mused as I left the studio.

“Because?” I asked.

“Because the crew have eaten 108 Jaffa Cakes in two days.”

This afternoon, Koto issued their first press release about the production, saying: Hell is a grubby story with a warm heart.

David Ralf is quoted as saying: “A sex shop is the last place most people want to admit to going to for research. But we found a world of independent Soho sex shops with dedicated and friendly staff, mind-bending products, and a rich and fascinating history in an area of London that’s changing fast.”

Rich Rose is quoted as saying: “So we kept some of that stuff and crammed the rest full of dirty jokes.”

I think that pretty much covers it.

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Political comedy, racism and Jew jokes

Liam Lonergan. Is all racism a black and white issue?

A Liam Lonergan photo. Not everything is so black and white.

Yesterday’s blog was a continuation of a chat I had with Liam Lonergan for his BA (Hons) course in Creative and Media Writing at the University of Portsmouth.

Earlier in our chat, we talked partly about my idea that British sitcoms which have lasted the test of time have often been set in tragic not comic situations.

Here is another extract:

__________

Liam: It’s sort of a rubbish question and I hate asking it but Is comedy actually important?

John: I guess it must be important because if there’s a totalitarian regime they don’t allow it. I somehow suspect there were not many Nazi comedy clubs – or, if there were, the jokes were all about Jews. So maybe they had some great Jewish jokes. Swings and roundabouts.

But totalitarian regimes are frightened of comedy and frightened of humour. If you made a joke about General Franco in Spain in the 1950s you would got arrested. Because I think you can change people’s opinions – slowly – with comedy. The trouble with a lot of political comedy, of course, is that comics are preaching to the converted. The left wing comedians who seem terribly popular are popular with left wing audiences. So they’re not actually doing anything at all.

Liam: Politics has merged into one now…

John: In the 1980s alternative comedy started because it was Mrs Thatcher. It took off because she was perceived as a right-wing, fairly authoritarian prime minister and the left-wingers had a field day. With the Conservatives (effectively) back in power, I don’t quite understand why that left-wing political comedy thing hasn’t come back again.

Liam: I think it’s easy to chuck something at something that’s made of lead – like Thatcher – but something that’s made of marshmallow, like Cameron… there’s no point chucking anything at it. It just moulds itself to accommodate the object that’s being flung at it.

Ben Elton used to be a political comic

Ben Elton – he used to be a political comic back in the 1980s

John: Maybe it was all done before in the 1980s and you can’t repeat… you can’t swim the same river twice or something. I dunno… Errr.. I have no idea where I’m going with this. Have you found out what your actual thesis is yet?

Liam: Well, I think you opened it up for me when you talked earlier about this comedy/tragedy thing. That’s something I’ve been really interested in for ages. So I think I might lean it towards that.

John: Well, American TV sitcoms like Cheers and all those shows, they’re written by committees and it’s gag, gag, gag, gag, gag and not really primarily personality based. David Croft’s BBC ensemble sitcoms, which are almost in a class of their own, were by-and-large written by two people: David Croft and someone else. They are by-and-large personality based. They’re not primarily gag based. Dad’s Army does have lots of gags in it but it’s actually personality based.

Most other British sitcoms that have lasted are personality-based in a tragic situation… Terry and June has not lasted; One Foot In The Grave has.

Liam: Do you think there’s any American comedy that has that vein – that sort of dark thread running through it – that you like?

John: I did like Maude. Have you ever seen Maude?

Liam: No.

John: It was with Bea Arthur. She went on to be in The Golden Girls as well. But Maude was sometimes wonderfully dark and she was an arguably sometimes unsympathetic central character. In Britain, it was transmitted as a half hour with one commercial break in the middle.

Bea Arthur as Maude with Bill Macy as husband Walter

Bea Arthur as Maude; Bill Macy as husband Walter

She’s a married late middle-aged woman and, in this one particular episode I remember, her husband’s long-lost chum who had been with him during the War was gonna turn up. He turns up at the end of Part One and he’s excited to meet his long-lost comrade and goes “Urghh!!” and falls on the floor behind the settee. Cut to commercial break. When you come back… he’s dead! So for the whole of the second half of the episode, the husband’s going: “Oh my god. I killed him! If I hadn’t arranged this today!… Oh my god, he had a heart attack…I killed my best friend!”

Bloody hell! This is an American sitcom! And Maude was sort of dark and had… It was more sort of vaguely Jewish humour.

Liam: With the American Office you’ve got to separate it from the British version. It’s a completely different sort of beast. The main character played by Steve Carrell is, in a more subtle way… he’s a dark character. The fact that he’s absolutely full of desperation and is in love with this idea of love but it’s never fulfilled.

John: Another British comedy set in an unfunny situation (that was funny) is Till Death Us Do Part. I saw a few episodes of the American version – All In The Family –  and it wasn’t as dark. He was not as dislikeable a character.

Also ‘dislikable’ is in the eye of the beholder.

Till Death Us Do Part was interesting because it was written by Johnny Speight and supposedly Alf Garnett was a character to be despised and frowned upon. But I always had a feeling that it reinforced people’s prejudices. People who were already bigoted wouldn’t be turned by the way his character was written. We’re talking about trying to change people’s attitudes. The whole point of that was to turn people’s attitudes so they realised what a bigot he was and I’m sure…

Liam: …it reinforced it.

John: Yes, absolutely reinforced the bigotry. I’m sure if you were that sort of person you would sit there and think: “Yeah, Alf’s quite right. That Liverpool yobbo son-in-law IS a wanker and Alf is the voice of reason.”

Liam: I think Jimmy Carr has used quotes… holding a mirror up to racism and laughing at racism rather than race. He’s laughing at the racism rather than race.

Love Thy Neighbour - top-rating comedy show

Love Thy Neighbour – a top-rating comedy show of the 1970s

John: I always thought Love Thy Neighbour – which has not lasted, because it wasn’t tragedy – was always very dodgy. I saw it when it first went out and I always thought: “I’m not sure I like this very much”. And Mind Your Language, which was set in a language school, was just full of stereotypes and I thought it…  was just about OK but it wasn’t really… It was just… There’s a difference between…

Liam: Like, cartoon racism?

John: There’s a difference between making fun of stereotypes and being too close to being racist. I think you can say (I’m Scottish myself) all Scots are drunks as a joke. And that’s fine. That’s actual comic social observation, taken to an extreme. There is a drinking problem in Scotland. So Scots are drunk and dour. The Irish are drunk and sing Tiddle-ee-aye music. The Welsh sing a lot in choirs. The English are either toffee-nosed or football hooligans.

Liam: Or sexually repressed.

John: Or sexually repressed. Yeah. Yeah. So there’s a difference between taking a slight tendency to an extreme simply to deliver a punchline and laugh about it… and saying people are to be despised or reviled because of something. That’s arguably the difference between Jewish jokes and jokes about Jews. It’s attitude.

If you’re abroad, the English are seen as two simultaneous stereotypes which are mutually exclusive but which run together. The English are either very snooty, upmarket public school people who look down on you and have a superiority complex – or they’re the dregs-of-society football hooligans. Both views have some basis in reality. And you can make jokes about both. But the first tends towards humour, which is acceptable, and the second tends towards xenophobia, which is not. It’s a fine line and it moves.

… TO BE CONTINUED …

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Comedy without gags but with tragedy

Liam Lonergan: man of comedy

Liam Lonergan: man looking for a good laugh

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

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

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

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

________________________

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

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

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

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

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

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

Janey Godley’s bestselling autobiography

Janey Godley’s 2005 autobiography

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

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

Liam: (Laughs)

John: That’s not funny.

Liam: No. No.

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

Liam: Is it because, like, an expectation?

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

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

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

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

Steptoe and Son - a tragedy

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

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

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

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

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

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

So ‘serious’ comedy I like.

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

Liam: Uncomfortable?

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

… CONTINUED HERE

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Dan March: Santa Claus via BBC TV’s “Miranda” sitcom & an Auschwitz man

Dan - right - and (as Santa) left

Dan March – right – and (in Santa role) left

What is it with comedy people I know being Father Christmas in department stores this year?

Last month in my blog, it turned out Bob Slayer was being a Santa this year.

Just over a week ago, I mentioned comedy performer Dan March’s 40th birthday party in a blogAnd, when I talked to him last week, it turned out he, too, was being a Santa this year – for Selfridge’s.

“Have you been a Santa before?” I asked him.

“Yes,” he replied. “I was Santa for Disney in their store on Oxford Street about ten years ago. I used to sit in the window and people would be brought in to me. It had its lovely moments and you get letters and they totally believe you.”

Dan’s 2009 solo show about appearing in Blockbusters

Dan’s 2009 solo show about Blockbusters

I met Dan in 2009, when he performed a one-man show called Goldrunner at the Edinburgh Fringe about how, as a 17-year-old in 1991, he had won the TV gameshow Blockbusters.

“You haven’t done a solo show at the Fringe since Goldrunner in 2009?” I asked.

“No. It’s been the (comedy trio) Real McGuffins since then. We started five years ago, before Goldrunner.”

“Sketch groups have had their day, haven’t they?” I asked.

Dan (top) with The Real McGuffins

Dan (top) is one of The Real McGuffins

“There’s always room for sketch comedy,” said Dan. “We’re working with a producer at a production company at the moment. We pitched four ideas, they liked one of them , so now it’s early stages.”

“And you might be doing a solo Edinburgh show next year?”

“I still haven’t made the final decision. I think it’s more about having a story to tell and wanting to tell it and there’s a couple of things I’m interested in telling. One is quite dark, so it might be a straight theatre piece. Or I could go down the full comedy route. I’ll be writing some stuff over Christmas and see if it’s taking shape by the middle of January.”

“Dark works well in Edinburgh for comedy,” I said. “And you’re still a straight actor as well as a comedy actor.”

“I thought I was a very serious actor,” said Dan. “I was in Casualty and EastEnders – I sold the Queen Vic to Peggy Mitchell back in 2001. I played estate agent Mr Hammond; I was in it for about a month.”

“Did you get recognised in the street?”

“I got recognised at a friend’s wedding,” laughed Dan, “and I got recognised the other day, when I was compering a wine-tasting evening. I sold a pub in EastEnders, ran a pub in Casualty and advertised a Belgian beer: so who better to host a wine-tasting evening?

“I thought I was a serious actor"

“I thought I was a serious actor”

“I thought I was quite a serious straight actor and then I did News Revue at the Canal Cafe where I met Gareth Tunley, who’s now directing quite a few things – he directed Goldrunner at the Edinburgh Fringe. I wrote a bit with him for Radio 4 for The News Huddlines and I started drifting in and out of comedy and it was only about six years ago I took the total plunge of having a comedy agent and writing shows and doing Edinburgh really full-on. But a lot of stand-ups now alternate and do some serious roles. Terry Alderton’s in EastEnders at the moment.”

EastEnders should cast Janey Godley,” I said. “She ran a pub for years and she has the genuine dodgy gangster background. Producers should cast comedians more. Good comedians have perfect timing, which is the most important thing in acting too.”

“The last couple of years,” said Dan, “I feel the experience of doing comedy has fed into my acting. I’ve just filmed an episode of a BBC3 sitcom Pramface. I think having gigged a lot in the last five years has really helped my acting. Even when you’re going for pure reality and not gags, the timing is there. Maintaining energy and controlling the audience while keeping in mind where you have to end up.

“I did do a very serious play this year. I think all performers get itchy feet for certain aspects if you haven’t done it for a little while. If you’ve done a lot of television, you get itchy for theatre; if you’ve done a lot of theatre, you get itchy to do telly. It does exercise different muscles, but you really cannot beat live performances.”

“You miss the immediate audible audience response?” I suggested.

“I was in Miranda,” said Dan, “and it was genuinely a joy to work on that programme. She’s a workaholic; she works really hard and people really do love her. She is genuinely famous. She goes out in front of that audience of 400 and they rip the roof off. The live audience response is phenomenal.”

“So, in ten years time?” I asked.

“I’d like to be a regular in a sitcom,” Dan replied. “There’s nothing better than making someone laugh. No better feeling than witnessing that and – in a live studio sitcom – you get that. Though, equally, if you’re filming something and the rest of the crew are laughing and enjoying it, then you know you’re onto something good too.”

Dan March practises his King Canute abilities for future use

Dan March practises his King Canute abilities for future use

“But presumably,” I said, “a 50-year-old comedian has more of a career problem than a 50-year-old actor because the live comedy audience is maybe aged 20-35 and they won’t relate to you.”

“Well,” suggested Dan, “Lewis Schaffer seems to be doing alright. He’s on the up.”

“But can he keep it up at his age?” I asked. “Lewis Schaffer’s shows are like sex. Have you seen his shows?”

“No,” said Dan.

“You have to experience at least two in a row to get the full impact of the unpredictability,” I said.

“That’s the problem, isn’t it?” laughed Dan. “Whether you can keep it up. The older you get, I think the wiser you get about how you use your time. I’m trying to be more focussed.”

“Apparently,” I said, “there’s some famous saying that, if you have not reached where you want to reach by the time you are 40, you are not going to reach it… Sadly I read this when I was 42.”

“I think that’s harsh,” said Dan. “Was it Margaret Thatcher said that? I know she said if you are still travelling on a bus when you’re 40, you’re a loser.”

“Did you read that on a bus?” I asked.

“No,” laughed Dan, “but I’ve just read an interesting book called Man’s Search For Meaning by Viktor Frankl.

Viktor Frankl’s bestselling book

Viktor Frankl’s bestselling book

“He was viewed as the successor to Freud in psychotherapy terms. He was put in Auschwitz (and other concentration camps) and survived, then wrote a book looking on his experiences as objectively as possible: Why did certain people survive and others just gave up?

“He looked at what we want from life and there are three main schools of thought. There’s the hedonistic lifestyle of living for immediate pleasure. There’s looking for power. with money as an offshoot of that. And then there’s looking for meaning – looking for the essence of life. There’s really profound stuff in this very short book.

“He said there was this one guy who had this dream in 1942/1943 in Auschwitz that the War would end on a certain date and that’s when they’d be liberated. So he was fine: probably one of the strongest guys in the camp. He made it all the way through and was getting really excited the last week before he thought Auschwitz was going to be liberated. And then it didn’t happen. They were not liberated and, within a week, he was dead. He just gave up.”

“When I was a kid growing up in Scotland,” I said, “the thing that was always drummed and drummed and drummed into your head was the story of Robert The Bruce and the spiderHowever impossible anything may seem, you just keep going. If you want to do it or if you think you right, you just keep going. Keep at it. If you want it, keep going. Keep trying to get that first thread across the gap that you can build the whole spider’s web from. Dogged relentless determination. Never give up.”

“Yes,” said Dan. “You have to find out what it is that keeps you going. For me, it’s about being the best performer I can possibly be. The best actor I can be. The best funny man I can be. If that means doing more acting or more comedy, I’ll do that. I enjoy making people laugh and if, in ten years time, I’m still doing comedy – great. If, in ten years, I’m doing straight drama, then I will be equally happy… I’m happy where I am at the moment.”

DAN MARCH’S SHOWREEL IS ON VIMEO

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