Tag Archives: slapstick

My Comedy Taste. Part 2: Eccentrics, anarchy and performers’ mad minds

In 2017, oft-times comedy festival judge and linguistics expert Louisette Stodel asked me about my taste in comedy.

I posted Part 1 of this chat yesterday.

Here is Part 2…


LOUISETTE: So you don’t like actors trying to be stand-up comics…

JOHN: To an extent. I am also allergic to a lot of character comedy. I don’t like character acts in general, though I do like some. I think the closer the ‘character’ is to reality – to being like a real person – the less I like it. But, if it’s a cartoon character – Charlie Chuck is a perfect example –  I like it.

I adore Simon Munnery; he can be very surreal, but I didn’t like his early Alan Parker, Urban Warrior character – It was too close to reality for me.

LOUISETTE: You mean realistic.

JOHN: Yes. I have met people who really are pretty-much like that. When I was a researcher for TV shows, I got typed for finding eccentrics and bizarre acts. I would find genuinely different-thinking people who did odd things and usually lived in provincial suburbia, bored out of their skulls with the mundanity of their lives, unable to unleash their inner originality and unconventionality.

So, if I watch a performer pretending to be eccentric, I think: Why am I watching someone faking a ‘performance’ when I could be watching the real thing? You can see in their eyes that these performers are not the real thing. They are sane people trying to be, to varying extents, oddballs they are not.

Well, all good comedians are, of course, mad to an extent.

LOUISETTE: They are not all mad.

JOHN: They are all unconventional thinkers or they have some personality disorder. The good ones. And I think one of the reasons I like watching comedy is I like watching some of the bizarre characters which a lot of comedians genuinely are. I don’t like people pretending to be odd characters, but I like watching people who ARE… well, a bit odd. They are the good comics for me.

There is maybe a difference with pure gag-delivery acts like Jimmy Carr, Milton Jones and Tim Vine.

LOUISETTE: But, getting back to character acts…

JOHN: If someone does a character act, they are pretending to be someone else, which is what an actor does… rather than being themselves or some version of themselves, which is what a modern comedian does. So, if I can watch a comedian – let us not mention Lewis Schaffer – with bizarre character traits, I am happy. If I watch an actor pretending to be a bizarre character but not being themselves, I am not really that interested because I can go out and find the real nutter.

LOUISETTE: So what you are saying is you want the person to be the person and you want that person to be nuts. Is that because there is no danger in playing a character, no risk except that the audience might not like it? Whereas, if the person is being themselves and they get it wrong or they go off the rails, there is a risk?

JOHN: I suppose so – like watching a motor race because there is always the danger of a disastrous crash.

I may be like a Miss World contestant. 

LOUISETTE: I don’t think so.

JOHN: But you know how contestants in old-fashioned beauty contests were always asked their interests and they would say, “Oh! I’m interested in people”? 

Well, I AM interested in people and how their minds work.

Most of my blogs are not objective blogs. They have very little of me in them. That is not because I am hiding me. It is because I’m interested in finding out how the other person’s mind works and – because they are usually creative in some way – how their creative juices shape their performance pieces or their life – how their mind creates original end-results. Or – because I sometimes mention crime – how their slightly non-mainstream thoughts work. And, of course, if there are quirky anecdotes in it, that’s great. I am interested in the people and I am a sucker for quirky anecdotes.

LOUISETTE: You say you are interested in the creative process – the thing that makes that person tick both on and off stage – But how do you analyse that? How do you figure out from somebody’s performance – even if it’s very close to the real person – what that real person’s process is?

JOHN: I don’t know. Maybe that’s why I keep watching people perform. If I knew everything, there would be no point seeing any other act.

LOUISETTE: But what are you looking for?

JOHN: I dunno. I’m just interested in how everyone is different. Everyone is different; everyone is unique. There is no end to it, missus.

At a distance, people are similar but, up close, they are, like Charlie Chuck, unique

LOUISETTE: Infinitely different.

JOHN: Yes. It sounds wanky to say it out loud, but people are infinitely interesting, yes. At a distance, people are just a mass of similar heads but, in China, the Terracotta Warriors in Xian all have individual faces. 

LOUISETTE: How does that come into it?

JOHN: I have no idea. I’m making this up as I go along. But, if you read about identical twins, they are usually a bit the same but a lot different. I’m interested in individuality. It’s not nature OR nurture. It’s BOTH that creates infinite uniqueness.

LOUISETTE: I’m still interested in getting at this elementary, basic thing that you are looking for. You do not want things to be off-pat. You don’t want an act to be overly polished. But what about someone like Spencer Jones who has a very well-formed act.

JOHN: Yes, he is interesting because he IS an actor and he IS doing character comedy… so I should not like him, but I do… But, then, he is doing a cartoon character. In no way are you going to find that character working in Barclays Bank or walking along the high street. So I like him, I think, because he is a cartoon character. I think it is mostly tightly-scripted…

LOUISETTE: Yes, that’s why I am asking you…

JOHN: Maybe physical comedy and prop comedy is different. 

LOUISETTE: Is he prop comedy?

JOHN: I dunno. Martin Soan created The Naked Balloon Dance for The Greatest Show on Legs… The Balloon Dance has to be done exactly as it is choreographed.

The whole point is that you never see any naughty bits and therefore the balloons have to be… It looks chaotic, but, if it were actually done willy-nilly – if that’s an appropriate phrase – it would fall apart and would not be as funny.

LOUISETTE: You said it LOOKS chaotic. Do you enjoy that? What you are saying is that, if it looks chaotic but it actually isn’t…

JOHN: Maybe prop comedy and physical comedy are different to stand-up. I suppose with Spencer Jones, you are shocked by the use of the props; the… unexpectedness… This… this falls apart as an argument, doesn’t it? There must be something different…

I like pun comedy: Tim Vine, Milton Jones, Darren Walsh, Leo Kearse to an extent. They are very tightly pre-scripted or, at least, prepared. With puns, if they have a vast number of puns, they can move the order around but the flow, the pacing, the momentum has to be kept going so they need to be highly pre-prepared.

So that’s where my thing falls down. Verbally, pun shows and short gag-short gag-short gag shows like Milton Jones’ have to be very tightly choreographed and the prop comedy shows have to be very tightly choreographed physically.

I know from being involved in Tiswas – the ancient slapstick kids’ show – that, if you do something that appears to be anarchy, you have to organise it really, really well. You can’t perform anarchy in an anarchic way; you have to organise it in advance.

LOUISETTE: Like Phil EllisFunz & Gamez.

JOHN: Indeed. And I remember one Tiswas production meeting, after the show had been going for years, where the producer said: “We have to figure out some way to make things go wrong during the show.” Because they had been going for so many years, all likelihoods were covered-for in pre-production meetings. Everyone was very experienced, very professional and nothing really went wrong that threw everything off course. You could script-in things to go wrong, but nothing ever went genuinely disastrously wrong of its own accord.

LOUISETTE: Which you seem to like…

JOHN: I do like anarchy. I don’t especially want to see a Michael McIntyre show because it will be too smoothly professional. I do prefer shows that are up-and-down like a roller-coaster in an anarchic way. Though, if it involves immense detail like props or puns, then you can’t have real anarchy. The only way to have apparent anarchy with props and puns and tight gag-gag-gag routines is to prepare it all very carefully.

So I am… I am getting schizophrenic here, aren’t I…?

LOUISETTE: You are. But that’s good. I was discussing it with Frankie (Louisette’s son Frankie Brickman) and he asked me if it was unpredictability you like or feigned unpredictability.

JOHN: Maybe if they feign the unpredictability in a very professional way and I don’t spot the fact it’s feigned…

It’s not even unpredictability I like. It’s the cleverness. If it’s clever and a rollercoaster, I will forgive them the bits that don’t work for the bits that do work. 

… CONTINUED HERE

Leave a comment

Filed under Comedy, Performance, Psychology

Original version of BBC TV’s Pompidou series & a brief history of visual comedy

Matt Lucas (right) and Alex Macqueen in the BBC’s Pompidou

Matt Lucas (right) & Alex MacQueen in the BBC’s Pompidou

This Sunday teatime, Matt Lucas stars in the second episode of the ‘silent’ BBC TV series Pompidou.

The credits say it is written by Matt Lucas, Julian Dutton and Ashley Blaker.

Blaker produced Little Britain on BBC Radio, then wrote and produced Rock Profiles with Matt Lucas. They went to school together.

Multi-award-winning comedy scriptwriter/performer Julian Dutton started as an actor, then became a comedy scriptwriter for radio, but, he says, “I always made sure I performed in the things I wrote.” He appears in a later episode of Pompidou.

“I did stand-up for some years,” he told me yesterday. “I was an impressionist act on the circuit. Harry Hill encouraged me into stand-up when we were doing radio comedy. So I was doing this act, met Alistair McGowan, then Jon Culshaw and realised I was only No 15 or 20 or 25 in the country and the 25th best impressionist in the country does not get his own TV series.”

As a result, Julian turned more to writing, though usually appearing in the many shows he wrote.

Julian Dutton - Museum of Comedy

Julian Dutton – surrounded by comedy – in London this week

“So how did Pompidou come about?” I asked him.

“It originated as a character show,” he told me, “because I wanted to write a visual comedy that was very experimental and avant-garde, using some of the finest physical performers on the circuit – people like Dr Brown, The Boy With Tape on His Face, the Australian act Lano and Woodley – people like that who are under-used on British television.

“I approached everybody. I approached ITV, BBC, everybody. And then Matt’s production company took it on and it morphed into a more family-friendly, slapstick, mainstream entertainment on BBC2. It was decided that an avant-garde and experimental comedy show would be a little bit too niche.

“After that, the second incarnation of it was as a character sketch show like Little Britain, where Matt was going to play all the characters – like a visual League of Gentlemen: a day in the life of a town, but all visual.

“Then gradually, as the months went on, we pared things down and shaved bits off and ended up focusing on one character: Pompidou. It became more mainstream and family-friendly, rather than complex and avant-garde. But I’m happy with it being a family mainstream show, because I love family mainstream shows. It has become more Norman Wisdom and less Jacques Tati.

There is a trailer for Norman Wisdom’s The Bulldog Breed on YouTube.

“Was your series always called Pompidou?” I asked.

“Once it focused on Matt as a single character, yes.”

“What was the first Dr Brown type experimental version called?”

“The Dumb Show. The second title was The Shusssshhh Show.”

“And why the name Pompidou?”

“We wanted an international name and we thought, in the back of our minds, that the French still like mad clowns. Also there’s the pomp pomp-posity. From memory, I think he was originally called Mr Pamplemousse – French for grapefruit. The back-story is that he’s descended from French Huguenots.”

“It was always going to be a silent series?” I asked.

“Oh yes,” said Julian. “Well, non-verbal, because there is this distinction between silent and non-verbal. The reason I wanted to do a show without dialogue was basically because I grew up with loads and loads of non-dialogue shows on TV – Eric Sykes, Ronnie Barker, Marty Feldman – Every sketch show I remember when I was young had about 10 minutes of non-verbal stuff. There was a revival of it in the 1960s and 1970s.

“I first saw silent comedy when Bob Monkhouse had a TV series Mad Movies and BBC2 brought out a version of it with Michael Bentine: Golden Silents. They used to show Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Laurel & Hardy, Harold Lloyd and The Keystone Kops.

“I was inspired not just by the old, silent comedians but by the new visual comedians – in particular Jacques Tati who, just after the War, re-invented visual comedy. Then there were Eric Sykes and Ronnie Barker, Marty Feldman… Dave Allen did tons of visual stuff. In every Dave Allen Show, there was about 10 minutes visual comedy – The Undertakers’ Race, tons of stuff.

The Undertakers’ Race is on YouTube.

“So that,” said Julian, “is where Pompidou came from, really. It struck me that, since Mr Bean – the last one was in 1997 – nobody had tried a visual comedy. And I had written tons and tons of children’s television.”

“You wrote for the Chuckle Brothers’ TV programme,” I nudged.

“Yes, I wrote for them for about four years,” said Julian. “The last three series. They’re a variety act family that goes way back to the 1930s (Their elder brothers are The Patton Brothers.) There were five of them. They were really the early British mainstream variety Marx Bros, though not as anarchic – I think the Crazy Gang were the equivalent of the Marx Bros over here.

“That’s how I cut my teeth on visual comedy, really. The Chuckle Brothers’ shows were deceptively difficult to write. They seem very simplistic and very very light-hearted and infantile, but their knowledge of physical routines was very impressive. When people see light entertainment on screen, they wrongly think that it’s light to create. But it’s not a light matter.”

“The Chuckle Brothers,” I suggested, “are maybe looked-down on by critics?”

“Clowning is a bit looked-down-on in Britain,” agreed Julian. “The French look on dumb-show mime as an art form. We look on it as just pratting about.”

“I suppose,” I said, “mime in Italy and France is an art form and, in this country, panto-mime is for children.”

“Exactly,” said Julian. “And that is why some of the reaction to Pompidou is… We are getting very good feedback especially from family audiences and we have had some very good reviews from people who ‘get’ it – that it’s a family, clown show. Some reviewers have criticised the show for appealing to children, as if that is a bad thing. But children make up the vast majority of the global TV audience. So why shouldn’t we be making comedy for children that stars a guy who was in an edgy sketch show (Matt Lucas in Little Britain)?”

Mr Bean was always accepted by adults, wasn’t it?” I asked.

Mr Bean was very heavily criticised when it first came out,” Julian corrected me, “because Rowan Atkinson had done Blackadder, which was very very ‘in’ with the university wits. Mr Bean was originally looked-on as a downward step for Rowan Atkinson.”

Julian Dutton - Keeping Quiet

Julian’s book on comics Keeping Quiet

“I bow to your superior knowledge of comedy history,” I said. “You’ve written a book about visual comedy – Keeping Quiet: Visual Comedy in the Age of Sound – which is coming out next month. Surely there have been lots of books before on the subject?”

“Oddly, no,” said Julian. “It struck me when I was working on Pompidou that there have been thousands of books about silent comedy, but they always stop at 1927. There has never been a book about the history of visual comedy after the advent of sound. Kevin Brownlow, Paul Merton, Walter Kerr – all the authorities – stop in 1927.

“But visual (non-verbal) comedy didn’t stop then. There have been books on the individual people, but there’s never been a comprehensive history of it as a distinct genre… And it IS a distinct genre. It’s not silent comedy. It’s visual comedy in the age of sound. None of it is silent. There’s sound effects, music gags… Laurel & Hardy introduced sound gags. Charlie Chaplin and Jacques Tati used sound gags: it’s a different type of comedy. People like Jerry Lewis, Norman Wisdom…”

“I used to like Jerry Lewis when I was a small kid,” I said.

“And European adults like him,” said Julian. “He’s a hero in France and Norman Wisdom is a hero in Albania.

“In the early 1960s, Norman Wisdom’s films were bigger at the box office than James Bond. I think he’s very under-rated as a subversive comic. At his height, in the 1950s, he was making very subversive comedy.”

“Which is why his films were acceptable in Albania,” I said.

“Exactly,” said Julian. “It was always at the expense of the British Establishment. It was as satirical as most of the Boulting Brothers’ films, which were seen as ‘serious’ satire. I think Norman Wisdom is exceedingly under-rated.”

“After Charlie Chaplin,” I said, “the two most successful British comedians worldwide were Benny Hill and Rowan Atkinson.”

“Absolutely,” said Julian. “Benny Hill’s early work was very very visual, very influenced by continental mime. Very under-rated. And there was a motive when we made Pompidou to make a comedy that would appeal to all nations. Visual comedy has sort-of exploded on the internet – almost all the viral YouTube posts are visual, are slapstick. But mainstream TV has not caught up with the fact we are living in a global visual age.

“Visual comedy is not just clowning. There has been some very experimental stuff. Ernie Kovacs in the 1950s was a television pioneer in the US and made silent TV sketch shows. Mainstream, primetime, early-evening NBC shows. And not just silent, but he made sketches with no human beings in them: comedy sketches with (stop-frame) household objects. This was surreal, avant-garde TV as art in the 1950s. And it was a huge, Emmy-nominated success.”

There are several Ernie Kovacs clips on YouTube.

“And now?” I asked. “After Pompidou, what for you?”

“I’m focusing on feature films now,” said Julian. “I’ve had a feature film optioned and commissioned and the scripting is underway. It’s a British-American animated comedy film. And I’m also pitching a live-action high-octane film to America.”

“American TV is very keen on British comedy at the moment,” I said.

“Funnily enough,” replied Julian, “I’m also writing a cartoon series for American TV called Little People that’s coming out at the end of the year.

There is a BBC TV trailer for Pompidou on YouTube.

Leave a comment

Filed under Comedy, Surreal, Television

Critic Kate Copstick on her dislike of Lee Evans and Only Fools and Horses

Copstick takes a leek during yesterday’s Grouchy Club Podcast recording

Copstick took a leek during yesterday’s recording of the Grouchy Club Podcast

Yesterday, after unsuccessfully trawling St Pancras station for a likely place to sit, comedy critic Kate Copstick and I recorded our third Grouchy Club Podcast sitting outside the British Library on  Euston Road in London. The result runs 44 minutes and is HERE.

We also recorded it on video so that I could upload a 10-minute clip onto YouTube… But I may have erased that by accident. I will find out this afternoon when I go to the Apple Store in Regent Street and throw myself on their mercy. 

Among the things Copstick and I discussed yesterday were why Free Fringe founder Peter Buckley Hill told her I was “odious” and why Copstick thinks comedy critic Bruce Dessau is wrong to say I am “enigmatic”.

Copstick has very strong opinions which she is not afraid to express, as demonstrated in this brief extract from the podcast:


COPSTICK
…….. I’ll tell you what else The Man had, which was massive quantities of sweat. We were quite a small, intimate audience…

JOHN
You must love Lee Evans, then.

COPSTICK
Oh! I can’t stand… I don’t find him funny.

JOHN
Oh, poor Lee Evans. He’s very funny.

COPSTICK
I really don’t. I mean, I appreciate he’s a national treasure and everybody else in the world does, but I don’t find ‘stupid’ funny. I hate all the falling around and the ridiculous hurtling around on stage. I just can’t stand it. I just have to look away. When he used to be not-so-outrageously-famous-and-hugely-internationally-successful and he was on, say, at the Comedy Store, I used to go out (of the room) when he was on. All that manic hurtling around and the slapstick and the craziness I can’t cope with.

I’m a very un-fan of Buster Keaton, Abbot & Costello, all of those. I hate – I really really do dislike – any kind of slapstick comedy. I find it irritating in the extreme, because it’s stupid.

JOHN
But surely the basis of comedy is stupidity.

COPSTICK
No, the basis of comedy is aggression, I think you’ll find, John.

JOHN
The basis of your reviews is aggression.

COPSTICK
No no no no no. The basis of my reviews is truth about and passion for. That’s not aggression.

JOHN 
I have a feeling your autobiography is going to be called My Struggle.

COPSTICK
(Laughs) But, erm, no no no, I don’t think my…

JOHN
There is no basis of comedy, because there is no one thing called comedy, is there? There are all sorts of reasons for laughing.

COPSTICK
It’s, yes, disguised aggression and I don’t believe particularly that there’s a great deal of comedy that doesn’t have something as its butt.

JOHN
I never understood the Laurel & Hardy thing – even as a kid – where kicking someone in the bottom was apparently very funny in 1920 or something.

COPSTICK
I mean, the whole banana skin thing… Just look where you are going, for Godsake!

JOHN
But that can work. It’s the timing, isn’t it? You’re not laughing particularly at the slapstick. You’re laughing at the timing, because it’s unexpected…

COPSTICK
It’s… I wouldn’t go as far as to say it’s a worry, but it irritates me. It used to irritate me more – many other things about me irritate me more now. But it used to irritate me that I didn’t understand what’s funny about slapstick. Even if it doesn’t make me laugh out loud, I have a need to understand… I don’t get it.

JOHN
But the (British) nation’s ‘funniest’ joke is in Only Fools and Horses, isn’t it? Where he falls…

COPSTICK
Where he falls through the… yes…

JOHN
… falls through the bar.

COPSTICK
It’s beautifully done. But, you see, I hated Only Fools and Horses.

JOHN
I didn’t like it either, but…

COPSTICK
I really hated Only Fools and Horses.

JOHN
Why did you hate Only Fools and Horses?

COPSTICK
Because the people were stupid. Rodney was stupid.

JOHN
I thought they were cartoon characters who didn’t quite work.

COPSTICK
Yeah…


Noel Faulkner this week at the Comedy Cafe

Next, Noel Faulkner – Grouchy at the Comedy Cafe

Next Sunday’s recording of The Grouchy Club Podcast (no audience admitted) will be at London’s Comedy Cafe Theatre and should have its highly outspoken owner Noel Faulkner discussing comedy with Copstick.

Slander and libel lawyers – You have been warned!


You can listen to the third Grouchy Club Podcast HERE.

3 Comments

Filed under Comedy

The cruelty of comedians and how to get laughs from very unfunny situations

Piratical comedian Malcolm Hardee (photograph by Vincent Lewis)

Malcolm Hardee: ‘godfather of British alternative comedy’ (photograph by Vincent Lewis)

Thursday this week is the 8th anniversary of the death by drowning of British comedian Malcolm Hardee a man who, it seems to me, got away with a lot of dubious actions because of his personal charm: people (often including me) simply shrugged, laughed and thought Oh! It’s only Malcolm being Malcolm!

In yesterday’s blog, Malcolm’s sometime neighbour Nick Bernard said: “He could be really quite cruel, but it wasn’t like mean or deliberate. He saw the line of humour and the eventual laugh and he thought: I’ll just go for the humorous line and fuck it!

This got me talking about cruelty in comedy to my friend Louise yesterday.

“In Charlie Chaplin movies,” I said, “they’re forever kicking other people in the bottom. It’s even in Laurel and Hardy movies. And, in Three Stooges movies, they stab two fingers in other people’s eyes. I never understood why that was supposed to be funny. Even as a kid, it seemed to me to be cruelty not comedy.”

“What about slipping on a banana skin and falling over?” asked Louise.

“That can be funny,” I admitted. “But that’s laughing at the unexpected.  Kicking someone’s bottom or stabbing their eyes out is something different.”

“It’s childish,” said Louise. “Being childish can be a good thing: innocent, curious, enjoying simple unexpected things. But it’s not realising consequences which is the downside. Not realising you’re going to cause damage to someone.

“When you talk about some of the things Malcolm did, the only people I know who would be doing those sort of things at the moment – really, genuinely – are three children I know, who are aged 4, 8 and 10. They think Oh! That’s funny! Let’s skid on that! or Oh, I’m going to throw this at that person and they don’t think it might blind the other person.”

“When Malcolm died,” I remembered “his obituary in The Times said Throughout his life, he maintained a fearlessness and an indifference to consequences. That was written, I think, in admiration. Everyone wants to be free like that, to do whatever they want, to have no fear of consequences but, in reality, it’s a negative thing as well, isn’t it?”

“There’s a lot of cruelty in comedy,” said Louise. “People laugh at other people’s pain. On TV, there’s You’ve Been Framed.”

“It used to be funnier,” I said, “when Jeremy Beadle did it, because the clips were longer. You saw the build-up and you laughed at the unexpected pratfall. Now you just see people falling over or being hit with things edited tightly together with no build-up.

“It’s like editing the punchlines of jokes together without any build-up. It’s like saying To get to the other side… Terrible… She went of her own accord.” When you just edit together the bits where people always laugh and cut out the build-up sections where people never laugh, you lose what makes it funny.”

“And sometimes,” said Louise, “people are not laughing because it’s funny but as a nervous relief. A release of anxiety. Sometimes, when people laugh, they cry, because they are releasing tensions.”

“I think it’s all surprise,” I said. “You’re releasing your relief in a laugh. A lot of jokes are based on the fact you think you know what is going to happen and then, at the last moment, something unexpected happens… A pun… Someone slipping on a banana skin… Even observational comedy: there’s some situation you know well but the comedian shows you a sudden unexpected angle you hadn’t thought of… You laugh because you’re suddenly surprised by the unexpected.

“Malcolm,” I mused, “was a wonderful compere but not really a good stand-up comedian. He had about six jokes which he told for 20-odd years. People always said his comedy routine was his life, which is why there are endless stories about him. And, ironically, that’s why his fame may live on longer than more successful stand-up comedians. That and his autobiography.”

“And with all the stories about Malcolm,” Louise suggested, “people often laugh because he did something which you could never credit anyone would actually do. The element of surprise and shock.”

“Well,” I said, “you know my theory that all the best British sitcoms which last (apart from the ensemble ones like Dad’s Army) are actually tragedies – Steptoe & Son, Hancock, One Foot in The Grave. All terrible situations. They’re situation comedies but not, at heart, comic situations. What’s happening to the characters is not funny and they’re not ‘comic characters’ but you laugh with their difficulties. You laugh at the situations but they are not comic in themselves; it’s the way they are presented.”

“And Johnny Vegas when he started,” said Louise. “He would go on about how terrible this-and-that was and what a terrible life he had and, he said, You’ve all just come along to laugh at me!

“You know,” I said, “how I think Janey Godley is brilliant because she doesn’t say funny things, she says things funny. Her breakthrough show at the Edinburgh Fringe was Good Godley! which was a comic version of her autobiography Handstands in the Dark.

“The book (which I edited) is horrific. It’s like Edgar Alan Poe. It’s terrifying. Just horrific. But she told exactly the same stories on stage in Good Godley! and people were falling about with laughter.

“People who never saw the stage show but read the reviews thought it must be in bad taste because they thought she must be making jokes about rape and murder, but she wasn’t. She was telling the stories straight without comedy, but she was telling them in such a way that the audience were able to release their tension at the end of the stories – and during them – and they did that by laughing.

“People who admire her like me and Stewart Lee have said the same thing – that she doesn’t tell jokes. She tells non-funny stories in a funny way. There’s that YouTube clip from a show which I’ve blogged about before, where she tells the audience she was raped as a child by her uncle but, later, got her uncle killed. The audience laughs. She tells them it’s true. They laugh more. She tells them she got his cock cut off. They laugh even more. The more she tells them it’s true, the more they laugh. But she’s not saying anything that’s funny and, in this case, she’s not even saying it in a funny way. It’s working purely on her personality, her timing  and her ability to ride the laughs. Now that is great comedy. Amazing comedy. Big big laughs. But not funny in itself. It’s the comedian making some unfunny situation into something which gets laughs.”

1 Comment

Filed under Comedy, Humor, Humour

World Egg Throwing Championships: cheaper and funnier than the Olympics

(Versions of this piece were published by the Huffington Post) and on the Indian WeSpeakNews website.

Consequences of failing to catch

I woke up this morning in the middle of a dream about comedian Helen Keen riding at breakneck speed atop a camel racing along Old Compton Street in Soho while her writing partner Miriam Underhill kept pace by calmly walking with a large brown bird (not a falcon) on her ungloved hand.

I used to regret that I could never remember my dreams. Now I should perhaps be concerned that yesterday was almost as surreal as my dream.

I went to the World Egg Throwing Championships in a very large field at Swaton in Lincolnshire. There were teams from Germany, Greece, Holland, Ireland, New Zealand, South Africa, Sweden, the UK and the USA

John Ward with his grate egg Olympic torch

Events included long-distance egg throwing, the egg throwing static relay, the World Egg Trebuchet Challenge and, terrifyingly for me, the World Russian Egg Roulette championship. Why the Russian Roulette event was personally terrifying I will explain later but, initially, I was there to support my chum, mad inventor John Ward, who turned up wearing a Mat Hatter’s top hat and holding what he called an Olympic Egg Torch. This appeared to be a gold-painted cheese-grater on top of a gold-pained cracked wooden egg on top of a silver bicycle horn.

“I thought other people would be dressed up too,” he told me in a vain attempt to explain the hat. “Egg throwing is the People’s sport,” he added. “It’s cheaper than the Olympics.”

John Ward and others catapulting eggs

John Ward also came with a nine feet high wooden catapult, because the World Egg Trebuchet Challenge not surprisingly involves trebuchets which are, according to my dictionary, “machines used in medieval siege warfare for hurling large stones or other missiles”. There were five in the contest. John Ward had only had time to spend three days building his and competed valiantly for Queen and country but, maintaining an age-old British tradition in field sports, failed.

Which brings us to the Russian Egg Roulette event in which John Ward was also competing.

This involves two seated people facing each other across a table – as in The Deer Hunter, but with a box of six eggs instead of a revolver with one single deadly bullet. The twist is that five of the six eggs are boiled and one is raw.

An Irish competitor comes to a not very unusually sticky end

Each competitor then takes it in turns to smash an egg of their choice onto their forehead. If the egg is boiled, it does not explode into sticky gunge all over their forehead. If it is the raw egg, then… erm… it does. Obviously, the person who smashes the raw egg onto his or her forehead loses. And gets sticky.

Imagine my surprise, dear reader, when I heard my name called for this event.

This is one of the downsides of having worked on the slapstick children’s TV show Tiswas. When I was a researcher on the show, people I met (for research purposes) felt duty-bound to ram a custard pie in my face to show they had a sense of humour. Oh my! How I laughed.

Organiser Andy Dunlop provides ammunition

At the World Egg Throwing Championships, very highly efficient organiser Andy Dunlop thought he would surprise me by putting me in the Russian Egg Roulette event and announcing me as “former Tiswas wordsmith John Fleming”.

In fact, I was never a Tiswas scriptwriter. In my day, that considerable honour was held by David McKellar, a man eternally worshipped by me for having previously written the weather forecaster line: “And now, bad news for 4-foot dwarfs… 5-foot snowdrifts.”

Aaaannnny-way……

One of the other Russian Egg Roulette contestants was one of the two identical twins representing Greece, but the organisers were unsure which one it was.

World Gravy Wrestling Champion fails in Russian Roulette

Another was handsome hunk Joel Hicks, male model and World Gravy Wrestling Champion, who had come stripped to the waist and dressed in shorts and boxing gloves as Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky. Earlier, he had been the human target in a rather random Target Egg Throwing event and, as a result, spent the whole afternoon covered in dried egg yolk with fragments of embedded eggshell sticking out of his face.

I triumphed in the Russian Egg Roulette heats in face-offs with two small children – who seemed to be the only children in the contest, the others being egg-hardened professionals. As my second tiny opponent smashed the raw egg against her forehead, the crowd roared and I heard event organiser Andy Dunlop yell out: “Now that’s fun! THIS is entertainment!”

I fail to mask my gloating at the sticky shame of a Dutch girl

I was equally successful against a very attractive Dutch girl. I suspect Dutch girls smashing eggs on their foreheads commands a very high price in some quarters.

I had decided to represent Scotland in this contest, as I had been wantonly and incorrectly introduced as: “John Fleming representing England” and so I started singing Flower of Scotland, which was an unfortunate choice, as I discovered I only knew the first four words – Oh flower of Scotland… No-one was impressed.

John Ward smashes the thankfully losing egg on his forehead

Bizarrely (as, by its nature, it is not possible to ‘fix’ a Russian Egg Roulette contest) I faced John Ward in the semi-final. I triumphed again. He had the minor consolation of an in-depth interview (I kid you not) by an unsmiling film crew from some Russian television station and he later told me: “The interviewer guy said It will not be transmitted until July – I imagine they must be vetting the footage for any coded messages.”

My nemesis: clearly a man of extreme brutality

In the grand final, I then unfortunately faced a large man called Jerry Cullen dressed in black wearing sunglasses. Very intimidating he was. Hard-boiled, some might say, but not me. Oh no, not me.

The first four of the six eggs we smashed on our foreheads were, indeed, hard-boiled, leaving only two more eggs – one for each of us.

At this point, a lesser egg contestant might have cracked and, admittedly, I resorted to saying, “I’m doomed, I’m doomed,” in the best John Laurie (from Dad’s Army) accent I could muster.

It was like a penalty shoot-out in a football match, so I was relieved not to be representing England.

The man in black went first… smashed the egg against his forehead… and it was hard boiled. He had won the contest.

Cameraman + small child gloat over my ignominious defeat

But this meant I had to smash the final egg against my forehead knowing it was raw and would explode into yellow gunge. I thought of bravely saying something like, “The yolk is on me,” but even I baulked that. So I just smashed the egg onto my forehead as the – I felt somewhat unsympathetic – onlookers rhythmically chanted “Splat! Splat! Splat! Splat! Splat!” until the deed was done.

A broken man with mangled egg and a medal

The good news was that I got an unexpected runners-up medal – a silver star with a picture of a hen on it – with a red-white-and-blue ribbon to go round my neck. My chest swelled with patriotic pride. I felt I had not totally let down the nation of my birth.

Though, unlike the Olympic Games, there is no xenophobia at the World Egg Throwing Championships. The static relay event was won by a team of Germans, Greeks, Irish and English. I chatted to two of these fine athletes: Reg Marchant from Catford and his partner Sandy Winterton from Dagenham.

“I understand this is your first time being a tosser in public,” I said to Reg.

Reg and Sandy: two triumphant tossers amid trebuchets

“Yes,” Reg answered, “but I do actually practise tossing every other day. Sandy does it for me quite a lot. Sandy said to me Do you want to toss in public at the World Championships, so we came and it’s been great.”

“It’s been wonderful,” agreed Sandy.

“We’ll be back next year,” Reg told me, “to try to reduce the time it takes. Sandy and I have to fine-tune our tossing technique over the next year.”

At this point, John Ward wandered across to join us.

“It’s been an interesting afternoon,” he said.

(There are video news clips – with me briefly at the very end – on the ITN site here, the International Business Times TV site here and I actually get to speak in the middle of the report on the Chinese 7M Sports website here)

3 Comments

Filed under Comedy, Humor, Humour, Sport

Martin Soan: the tit-fancying surrealist comic who props up other comedians

Yesterday: Martin Soan in a quiet suburban setting

Yesterday, on his way back home to London from Leicestershire, where he had been writing scripts with comedian Boothby Graffoe, surrealist comic Martin Soan stopped off for a meal with me and my eternally-un-named friend at my home in Borehamwood.

“What was that kitchen set you built for Boothby at the Edinburgh Fringe a few years ago?” I asked.

“You know what it was,” Martin said.

“I never saw it,” I replied.

“That was my biggest prop ever!” Martin said. “The idea was that it was a whole kitchen including a Welsh dresser with plates, a washing machine, fridge, double freezer, table, pictures on the wall and bookshelves.

“Boothby did a load of sight gags around the kitchen and, at the penultimate moment of the show, he put some washing in the washing machine – a real one – and says, Look after it and he goes through the door and the washing machine is left alone on stage.

“The washing machine goes whiiiirrrr… Silence… Then whiiiirrrr… Silence… Just the washing machine on stage doing this… and I had programmed it so that, on the third one, it goes into this spin… Whiiiirrrrrrrrrr… and I had upset the balancing of the machine so it gets a lot of vibration and wobble on it and the whole kitchen set starts vibrating and, slowly, things start falling off: the oven walks out and explodes, the fridge falls down in bits, the Welsh dresser’s shelves all drop at a special angle so the plates run off like a pinball machine and it all falls apart in a spectacular and stylistic way.”

“And what were you writing with Boothby yesterday and today?” I asked.

“Basically, the return of The Greatest Show on Legs to the Edinburgh Fringe in August with their new show,” he replied, “which is a deconstruction of the Legs, basically.”

“What’s a deconstruction?” I asked.

Deconstruction means taking it apart and building it up again,” explained Martin.

“And how are you going to do that?”

“We don’t do it. It’s just what we tell people. Then we do the same old shit and everyone thinks we’ve re-invented ourselves.”

“You do other writing work with Boothby, don’t you?” I asked.

“Yup,” Martin said. “He’s a great gag/punchline man and I’m good at creating scenarios and situations. What a lot of people don’t realise about Boothby is he’s a great physical actor: a great clown, great at being stupid. Most people think of him as being a rather cerebral comic on the surreal/intellectual side of things. They don’t realise he’s a great prat-faller and he does that for me and I think he really enjoys it. When I’m writing with him, I’m falling about laughing, because he’s a genius.”

“And you’re a bird watcher,” I said.

“A lot of comedians are ‘twitchers’,” Martin replied. “When I was a kid, I studied my Observer Book of Birds every night before I went to bed. When I was eight years old, I became a member of the XYZ Club.”

“The XYZ Club?” I asked.

“Exceptional Young Zoologists,” Martin explained. “It involved taking a keen interest in animals and birds and their welfare and, when I was eight years old, I was involved in the ecological side of the balance of nature. For my efforts, I received a monthly periodical called Animals and twelve free tickets to the London Zoo which, even in those days, was well worth getting.”

“What’s your favourite bird?” I asked.

“Probably the mistletoe thrush.”

“Why would that be?”

“Because,” he said, “I have a great fondness of them, being a London EastEnder. It was probably the most exotic type bird that I regularly saw.”

“You saw it in Forest Gate?” I asked, genuinely surprised. “Surely it was all sparrows in the East End?”

“I was tremendously fond of sparrows and starlings and skylarks,” he said, “And thrushes, bullfinches and tits – They were all common in the East End at that time.

“Lots of tits in the East End?” I asked.

“Lots of tits in the East End, yeah. We used to get coal tits but no marsh tits and no long-tailed tits.”

“Cold tits?” I asked.

“There are about six tits,” said Martin. “There’s a blue tit, great tit, marsh tit, coal tit and long-tailed tit. I think there might be a bearded tit, too, but I might be getting mixed up with a circus act.”

“You were telling me that,” I said, “this time of year, you get depressed because you have to build all sorts of sexual props for other acts.”

“Yes,” he agreed, “stand-up comedians going up to the Edinburgh Fringe want to do a new show and sometimes they either think of slide shows or some sort of sexually-orientated genitalia props – usually mammoth-sized. In the past, I have had to make a woman’s genitalia six-feet high – all-talking, all-singing, all-dancing… it actually talked. I built it so it talked like a mouth. I looked at millions of women’s genitalia to get it anatomically correct, but I decided there were no two anywhere that were similar.”

“This was research you had to do?” my eternally-un-named friend asked, “on the internet? Or you actually had to go and find…”

“No I did not,” Martin interrupted. “I did not go round asking people like you: Can I have a look at your cervix for someone else’s comedy show?

“Which internet pages did you look at?” I asked. “I think we should see.”

“No,” said Martin, “I don’t want to look again because, in the end, they all start to look like aliens. You start having dreams about them.”

“I know,” I said. “Are you doing any of those sort of props this year?”

“Yes,” said Martin. “I’m doing one for an act that I really do like: Bridget Christie. I’m making a birth canal for her.”

“But you’re not using any for your own Greatest Show on Legs performances at the Fringe…”

“Oh, well,” he replied, “I’m using loads of proper ‘prop’ props. I’m going to have Bob Slayer come on with an enormous pair of maracas and, of course, one of them explodes.”

“Of course,” I said supportively.

“And I’m going to have a proper hospital drip,” Martin continued, “on wheels so we can move it around.”

“Why do people approach you to make props for them?” I asked.

“Because I’m so cheap!” said Martin. “And because I specialise in low-tech props.”

“Innovative,” my eternally-un-named friend interjected,” with materials that are easily acquired.”

“Yeah,” said Martin. “So, if it goes wrong, they can very easily…”

“Like the Red Sparrows on sticks,” my eternally-un-named friend interrupted.

“Yeah,” said Martin. “You got it. And I’m beginning to familiarise myself again with latex.”

Martin paused and looked at me.

“When you write this as a blog, John I expect you to use a little grace,” he said.

“Oh, come on,” I replied.

“At least modify my foul mouth,” he replied. “There was one blog you wrote about me where I was saying Oh, for fuck’s sake fucksake, John, don’t you fuckin… ‘ave you fucking ‘eard of… I mean,” he said, turning to my eternally-un-named friend, “I’m drunk and telling a mate a story and he copies it all down and leaves all the fucks in! He could have quoted me as saying, My goodness, my good man, why I do believe it once happened that... But some of your blogs are funny, John. That one about the mice and Lewis Schaffer…”

There was a suspiciously long pause and then Martin looked me in the eye and said: “You known I had a relationship with a mouse?”

“You see,” I told him. “Lines like that, Martin, are ideal for blogs.”

“It was driving me mad,” he continued, “and I was very cruel to this mouse.”

“You were?” I asked.

“I was,” he replied, “and then I felt sorry for it.”

“How were you cruel to the mouse?” I asked.

“It had made an actual mouse hole,” he explained, “like a Tom & Jerry mouse hole. It wasn’t perfect, but it was a hole and it was very Tom & Jerry and it was in the wainscoting.

“So I set up this very elaborate little crossbow pointing at the mouse hole, triggered by a hair. And, when the mouse came out to get this little bit of cheese, it set off this hair-triggered crossbow which was rubber band powered. The ‘arrow’ was a match with a little pin stuck in the end and it just shot it towards the mouse hole.

“I fucking pinned the mouse! I got it! I killed the fucking mouse! I was so shocked I was immediately full of remorse. But I skewered him. I pinned him. I got the mouse. I killed the bloody mouse. And it made me feel really guilty.”

“Imagine how the mouse felt,” I said.

“I killed a mouse!” said Martin, looking simultaneously glum and triumphant.

Leave a comment

Filed under Comedy, Humor, Humour, Inventions, Mice, Theatre

I do not know why five people fired guns at the owner of the Comedy Cafe

I never remember my dreams. I wish I did.

Well, maybe I remember them once every couple of years.

I got to bed at around 3.45am this morning. Don’t ask.

The alarm went off at 8.30am.

I remember a dream if I am woken up during one.

This morning, when the alarm woke me, I was dreaming that an act had fired a gun past Noel Faulkner’s head. He owns the Comedy Cafe in London and was auditioning potential performers. He ducked, rushed off sideways and said: “They’re deafening me!”

“That’s very insensitive,” I told the man with the gun. “You’re the fifth person who has shot at Noel today.”

Five performers had walked in and shot at him, thinking it was a good attention-grabbing opening to their act. I partly know where this dream comes from.

It is partly connected with custard pies.

I used to work as a researcher on the children’s TV show Tiswas, which was known for custard pies and slapstick. When I went to see potential acts, they often thought it would be hilarious to ‘pie’ the man from Tiswas. They were, they thought, bound to get on the show that way. To tell the truth, it was a bit wearisome.

I used to smile appreciatively when it happened.

But there are worse things.

Auditioning children near puberty is one of them.

One year, too many – far too many – children –  especially slightly-off-key girls – were singing the song Tomorrow (from Annie) at me in auditions. It was appalling. They were well-meaning and enthusiastic. But that made it all-the-more ghastly. It was like having your teeth drilled while someone sticks a screwdriver in your ear.

And we all know what that feels like.

Presenter Chris Tarrant told me he had had a worse year, when lots of twelve-year-old boys with their voices in the process of breaking were singing Bright Eyes at him – because it was the song of the moment and because their parents thought it was cute.

“It was horrible,” he told me. “You never, ever want to hear a boy, at puberty, sing Bright Eyes.”

Getting repeatedly shot at with blanks in a small room by people trying to impress you would probably run this pretty close in a contest, though.

I did once try to persuade the producer of Channel 4’s The Last Resort with Jonathan Ross that, just to get publicity and to create what I thought would be an Andy Kaufman-esque moment, during an interview and immediately before a commercial break, someone should run on-set with a blank gun and shoot Jonathan in the chest. He would have exploding blood capsules under his jacket.

The shots would be fired, blood would spurt from holes in his jacket and the director would cut to the commercial break. After the commercials, Jonathan would re-appear in a duplicate jacket without any bullet holes and make no reference to what had happened.

“The regulators would not like it,” I was told.

The producer was probably right.

I was telling this story to someone yesterday.

Which must be why guns with blanks made an appearance in my dream.

How poor Noel Faulkner got involved, I have no idea.

There was a smell of cordite in the air, mixed with the smell of highly-whipped shaving foam.

On Tiswas, the ‘custard’ pies were actually made of highly-whipped shaving foam and other ingredients. The little bubbles of air in the highly-whipped shaving foam made the ‘pies’ stick to people, but it could be wiped-off quickly and cleanly.

People never used that formula when they ‘pied’ you as the visiting researcher from Tiswas, though. They used real custard pies.

Dreams are less messy.

You can wipe the blood away.

I wish I could remember them.

A whole world of surrealism is passing me by.

1 Comment

Filed under Comedy, Dreams, Television, Uncategorized