Tag Archives: talent

My Comedy Taste. Part 3: Stand-ups vs jugglers. Skill is not the same as talent.

I posted Part 1 and Part 2 the last couple of days, so …here is Part 3 – the penultimate part – of a conversation in London’s Soho Theatre Bar back in the mists of 2017 in which comedy festival judge and linguistic advisor Louisette Stodel asked me about my taste in comedy. I continue to talk less than fluently through my own anal passage


LOUISETTE: So you admire skilled and talented people…

JOHN: Yes, but skill and talent are not the same thing. Malcolm Hardee – the highly-regarded British comedian, philosopher and nudist – always used to say he didn’t like mime or juggling, because they are skills not talents and “a tragic waste of time”.

If an average person practises for 12 hours a day for 5 years, they could probably become an excellent mime or an excellent juggler. But, if they practise endlessly trying to be a good comedian, they would not necessarily end up an even average comedian because there is some innate talent required to be a good comedian.

If you have two good jugglers or mimes, they can probably be as effective doing each other’s routines.

If you have two good comedians, even if they deliver the lines with exactly the same intonation and pauses, they very possibly cannot be as effective doing each other’s material.

LOUISETTE: Because there is something in the person…

Tommy: often copied; never bettered

JOHN: Yes. Though it depends on the jokes a little. People CAN do Tommy Cooper jokes and impressions quite successfully because the jokes are very short and simple and the timing is built-in to his very specific style of delivery. But I have seen people steal short, snappy, very funny Milton Jones jokes and they can’t deliver them as effectively as he does.

LOUISETTE: Some funny people are born writers and some are born performers.

JOHN: In days of yore, you didn’t write your own jokes; you bought them. Bob Monkhouse and Denis Goodwin used to write for Bob Hope. Well, that still happens, of course. (Famous comedian A) has a scriptwriter. And (Famous comedian B) buys loads of gags. I know the guy who writes for (Famous comedian A) and he was watching some TV panel show recently and one of his jokes from a few years before turned up. Which was fine; he had been paid for it.

LOUISETTE: Bob Monkhouse was brilliant. But would you have paid to go and see him? You said earlier that you would not pay to see Michael McIntyre because he was too professional for you.

JOHN: Interestingly, I WOULD have gone to see Bob Monkhouse and I have no idea why… I… I dunno. He was the Michael McIntyre of his time and he would have been the same every night.

LOUISETTE: He was a different comedian to McIntyre with a different relationship to the audience.

JOHN: I suppose the attraction of Monkhouse was that you could throw any subject at him and, off the top of his head, he would have six or ten cracking good jokes about it. No tricks. He was just like a joke encyclopaedia.

As a kid, I never rated Ted Ray – who was a generation before Monkhouse but had that same encyclopaedic joke ability. But maybe that’s because I was just a kid. Maybe if I saw him now I would appreciate his ability more. Though, to me, he never had Monkhouse’s charisma.

Bob: “He just really was hyper-sensitive”

Monkhouse had a terrible public reputation for being smarmy and insincere – largely from his stint presenting The Golden Shot – but I don’t think he was. He just really was hyper-sensitive. I only encountered him once. We had him on Tiswas and he famously liked slapstick: he had acres of slapstick films and idolised the great slapstick performers but, when he agreed to do Tiswas, the one thing he specified up-front was: “You can’t shove a custard pie in my face.” No-one had any idea why.

The pies were made of highly-whipped shaving foam, not custard, so they wiped off without damage or stickiness, but he wouldn’t have it. No problem. He said it up-front. No problem, but very strange.

LOUISETTE: You like the encyclopaedic part of Monkhouse and his ability to tell pre-prepared jokes well. But what about, at the other end of the spectrum, Johnny Vegas? He appeals to your love of more anarchic things?

JOHN: Malcolm Hardee phoned me up one Sunday afternoon and said: “You gotta come down to Up The Creek tonight to see this new comedian Johnny Vegas. You and me will love him but the audience might not.” No-one had ever heard of Johnny Vegas, then. 

I went and saw him that night and Malcolm and I loved him and the audience loved him. You could feel the adrenaline in the air. You had no idea what he was going to say or do next and I don’t think he did either. I remember him clambering through and over the audience in the middle of his act for no logical reason.

Hardee called Johnny Vegas “a genius”

He had no vastly detailed act. He just reacted to the audience’s reactions to what he did. Utterly brilliant. I said to Malcolm: “He’s never going to be a success, because he can’t do 2-minute jokes on TV and repeat them word-for-word and action-for-action in rehearsals, camera rehearsals, dress rehearsals and recordings.”

And I was wrong, of course. He HAS become very successful on TV. But not really as a comic. He made it as a personality – on panel shows where he could push the personality angle.

There was amazing adrenaline in the air that night at Up The Creek. You can feel adrenaline in a live show. But you can’t feel it through a TV screen.

A few years later, I saw Johnny Vegas perform an hour-long show at the Edinburgh Fringe and Malcolm had seen the show for maybe seven nights before that – every night. And Malcolm used the word “genius” about Johnny and I said: “You almost never ever use that word about anyone,” and he said, “Every time I’ve seen this show in the last seven days, it’s been a totally different show.”

Not just slightly different. A 100% totally different show.

Janey Godley is interesting in that respect because you know the story of her NOT being nominated for the Perrier Award at the Edinburgh Fringe?

LOUISETTE: No. Tell me.

… CONTINUED HERE

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You want to be a comic? You do what?

Smiley face with moustache

.

Occasionally, people ask me for advice.

Proof, if proof were needed, that people are not always sensible.

This morning, I got a message from someone I know who has been engaged in various big projects for a while.

He told me:

Now I finally have the time to work on my own comedy material. Do you think this is worth doing? I don’t mind spending money to invest in my career. Do you think this comedy course is worth doing?

He named a particular course. I am dubious about the effectiveness of all comedy courses, especially this one, but suggested another which I had heard good things about.

The late Malcolm Hardee always said he thought mime was a tragic waste of time and juggling was a skill not a talent. I tend to agree with him.

Mime is almost always a tragic waste of time.

And juggling is a skill.

Almost anyone with normal abilities could practise five hours a day every day for five years and become a competent or good juggler.

But someone who practised being a comedian five hours a day every day for five years would not necessarily become a competent or good comedian.

Because performing comedy is not a skill; it is a talent. You do need skill and you can learn that but you also vitally need a certain almost indefinable something to become good at it. Hard work is not enough (though it can help if you have the basic talent).

But, even if you become a good comedian, you may not succeed. My advice this morning was:

The truth is that there are hundreds of perfectly good, competent comedians playing the circuit – all equally good, all equally effective at their job. But standing out amid this throng is another matter.

Find a USP, a Unique Selling Proposition. It will perk up audiences and bookers.

I cannot begin to tell you how much my soul has been sapped by the endless shows I have sat through with a bill of five competent 20-something white men talking about wanking and/or watching pornography.

Even if they were talking about something else and one was a West Indian Swede with a beard and a tattoo on his left elbow, it is just the same thing visually over and over again with an entirely competent performer delivering an entirely competent act while standing at a microphone.

Pacing backwards and forwards can make it worse.

Also, never create an act that involves having to carry a heavy prop or instrument around. A comic tuba player would get booked but would die from exhaustion carrying it to and from gigs. How Jim Tavaré ever succeeded with his double bass without having a heart attack is beyond me.

The reaction to my advice this morning was:

I cannot contain my desire to improvise and do voices so it would always be different. I’m gonna try to suss out where best to make my first tentative and anonymous steps into the world. My not very original idea being to see what works and what doesn’t in a live context. I also wanna see as much live comedy by unknowns such as me to size up the scene. It’s a new world for me but now I can throw myself into it fully.

He is charismatic and talented and has some savings in the bank. I just hope that is enough.

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Pompous advice to an as-yet unknown comedian spotted by a TV company

The Elgin Marble from the charity shop

Who is behind the mask? Me, giving advice.

I know someone.

I felt I should share that with you.

I occasionally go out onto the streets and meet people.

This person I know is clearly deranged, like many people I know. He is a performer, obviously. And he is not yet entirely successful, like many people I know.

I know he is deranged because today he contacted me for advice.

No sane person would do this.

He is being considered for a TV series.

His question to me was: “Should I do this or is the format too tacky…?”

My answer went thus:


You can never tell how things will turn out. I know someone who turned down being a judge on what is now a long-running Top Ten TV series because, in an earlier version, it sounded like a bad idea and slightly tacky.

The show you are being considered for will get you exposure. If it is shit, people will soon forget and also they will blame the TV people, not you. Your profile will rise because the TV people saw fit to book you on the show.

If it is a complete and utter 100% failure, you might get seen by 500,000 people in one episode. And this is a series of more than one episode. At the Edinburgh Fringe, you might not get seen by 500 people in the whole month.

You have to be in the right place at the right time, so say Yes to anything unless it involves setting fire to small woodland creatures or sticking children’s heads on spikes on London Bridge.

If you come across as brilliant, that’s good. If you are edited to look shit, that’s good. If you are edited to look dull (which would be bloody difficult) that’s not great, but it’s still hundreds of thousands of people having seen you and it is better than not being seen at all.

To be totally and brutally honest, no-one in the executive corridors of TV Land has ever heard of you and, if the series goes arse-over-tit you will not get the blame. But you WILL get seen. And the freelance people working on the show will be off on other future projects they do not yet know about and you may be perfect for one of those as-yet-un-conceived-of shows.

Don’t forget the independent TV production companies employ people solely for one-off projects. So, at the end, they will scatter onto other shows made by other companies for other channels.

Always explore every avenue because you never know what unseen side turnings may be down each of those unexplored avenues.

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The 2013 Edinburgh Fringe: Why one British comedian will not perform there

Thoughts on performing at the Edinburgh Fringe

Thoughts beyond a Malcolm Hardee Award (Photograph by Peter Kelly)

Going to the Edinburgh Fringe every August is addictive, like attending the Glastonbury Festival in June or buggering badgers in season.

Success at the Fringe can also almost overnight change the life of a performer, from someone who can’t fill a toilet with an audience to someone who has his or her own TV series and can fill arenas.

Yesterday I was talking to someone about staging extra shows at the Fringe in addition to the increasingly prestigious Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards Show.

But I also received an e-mail from a young-ish British comedian who wishes to remain anonymous for obvious reasons.

He or she has performed their own show at the Edinburgh Fringe before and he or she would like to perform again.

I think he or she should perform there again this year.

For one thing, it would be silly to forego the chance of winning an increasingly prestigious Malcolm Hardee Comedy Award (never knowingly under-promoted).

But this is what he or she told me:

__________________________________________________________________

I’ve been thinking long and hard about going back to the Edinburgh Fringe this year.

I genuinely believe that my style of performance does not suit itself to the Free Fringe or to the Free Festival. My show is a grower, not something that can really be dipped in and out of. Having done it once before, I’m pretty sure that it wouldn’t work in that format.

The Xxxxxxxx venue was fun last year, but it’s mostly theatre and doesn’t feel appropriate either.

That leaves the big four venues which, based on similar figures from last year, upgraded for the higher ticket price and hopefully higher footfall, would leave me with a loss of over £4,000.

This also means that it is impossible for me to take what I would consider any form of risk. That’s the biggest shame. Everything either has to be by a household name or sustain a laugh a minute otherwise it won’t succeed.

I genuinely feel that unless you are bankrolled by the Bank of Mum and Dad, it’s becoming almost impossible to do anything someone could tritely call ‘different.’ This works to the detriment of comedy and performance as a whole.

Maybe the idea is to try and get an agent. Unfortunately if you have even a modicum of talent, they will seek to water it down so you can appear on *insert TV panel show here*.

The Edinburgh Fringe is unique in that it lets self-indulgent idiots like myself a full hour to vent and express our comedic chops but, when it’s impossible NOT to lose thousands upon thousands of pounds, I struggle to see where a provincial act like myself can find anything that resembles the so-called big break.

For that matter, even a little break would do.

(WHO WAS THIS ANONYMOUS COMIC? – FIND OUT HERE)

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Edinburgh Fringe ‘Big Four’ venue boss shocker: English ‘man’ is Scots woman!

So You Think You’re Funny?

Tomorrow night is the final of the So You Think You’re Funny? talent show for new comedy acts in the Gilded Balloon, one of the ‘Big Four’ venues at the Edinburgh Fringe. In past years, the contest has ‘discovered’ acts including Johnny Vegas, Dylan Moran, Peter Kay and Lee Mack – and it is now in its 25th year.

Jason Cook will be compering tomorrow night; celebrity judge will be Ruby Wax; and also on the judging panel, as always, will be Gilded Balloon boss Karen Koren.

“Ben Elton and all those alternative comics had started in the early 1980s,” Karen told me yesterday. “By 1988, when we began So You Think You’re Funny?, Saturday Live had been on TV but my idea was to find new comedians because they were few and far between – or, at least, scattered – in Scotland. That’s how it started.”

The ‘Big Four’ venues at the Fringe are, it is usually said, run by English men who went to public school.

Karen Koren is definitely not an English man

“I am not English,” Karen told me,” I’m definitely not a man and I didn’t go to public school. Well, I went to a private school, but I wasn’t boarding or anything. It wasn’t posh!”

In fact, Karen was born in Norway but brought up in Edinburgh; and Anthony Alderson who now runs the Pleasance venue was born into a Scottish family.

Another ‘fact’ which is always said or assumed is that all the Big Four owners are based in London and swan up to Edinburgh in August to make money at the Fringe then return South.

“I live and work here all the year round,” Karen points out. Her Gilded Balloon company produces stage and occasionally TV shows in Scotland.

When the Gilded Balloon started in 1986 Karen focussed, from the beginning, on comedy… well, from even before the beginning.

“I had actually started staging comedy in 1985 at McNally’s,” she told me, “a place I was a director of and all these wonderful new alternative comedians were there. Christopher Richardson at the Pleasance and William Burdett-Coutts at Assembly were doing comedy to subsidise their theatre shows, but I focussed on comedy.

“At that time, there weren’t loads and loads of comics, but there was a great camaraderie. Everyone helped each other. It wasn’t the struggling business it is now where everyone wants to be stars. Today there’s not the same support mechanism we had in those days.

The original very very late-night Fringe show

“Comedy at the Fringe had started properly in the early 1980s, really with Steve Frost and his wife Janet Prince. They wanted places to perform in Edinburgh. Janet and I started Late ‘n’ Live together, but she lived in London and I kept going with it.”

When I first came to see comedy at the Edinburgh Fringe in the mid-to-late 1980s, Late ‘n’ Live was the one late-night show. Comics used to go there after their own shows finished to drink and watch – and sometimes heckle – other comics.

Late ‘n’ Live has been rough this year,” Karen told me yesterday.

“Financially or physically?” I asked.

“The audiences have been very, very…” she started. “Well, I made a TV programme called The Late ‘n’ Live Guide to Comedy and maybe audiences now think they can misbehave dreadfully. We’re going to have to shake them into shape. We’ve had a couple of rough nights.”

“Is it like that thing,” I asked, “with Malcolm Hardee’s club The Tunnel, where its reputation fed on itself?”

“That’s right,” said Karen. “Late n Live has always been fairly rowdy, but in a good-natured way. But now, in the Recession, maybe people are a wee bit more desperate… people are not doing so well financially or whatever… so maybe they’re just a bit ‘hungrier’ and want to ‘make’ things happen.”

“Do you think the comics are precipitating the behaviour?” I asked.

“No,” she said immediately. “Not at all. Though I think if you put a comic on who doesn’t know Late ‘n’ Live… well, there was an American comic who went on and talked about not being able to use Scottish money in England and he was saying it as a joke but the minute you touch on that  kind of subject in Scotland… Ooh! Oooh! Ooooh!… and the audience reacted and he only did five minutes. He walked off. Though he came back and did very well but… The problem is we have to put on comics who are challenged by the audience in order to make it work, but…”

“Lots of changes over the years,” I said.

“I expanded from one small theatre to 14 in the heyday of our building in the Cowgate,” said Karen. “And then we were up in Teviot one year before the fire which burned down our old building. So now we are in Bristo Square.

“I did have another venue called The Counting House at the beginning of the 1990s. I named it The Counting House because that’s where they counted the money above the Peartree pub and that was around the time I gave up my full-time position as the PA to the Norwegian Consul-General in Edinburgh. Before that, I had taken my holidays in August to coincide with the Fringe.”

Did I mention the Malcolm Hardee Show?

“Oh,” I said, “I didn’t know you had had the Counting House. That’s where I’m doing the Malcolm Hardee Awards Show in Friday.”

In Edinburgh, promotion is everything.

Karen, of course, knew Malcolm from the 1980s onwards and he appeared many times on Gilded Balloon stages.

“We all still think about him today,” Karen told me, “though I loved him better when he was sober than when he was drunk. But I nearly always did what he asked me at the Gilded Balloon, that was the odd thing.”

“He must have been ‘challenging’ to put on,” I suggested.

“But always entertaining,” Karen said. “The last time he was on, he just took it upon himself to go on Late ‘n’ Live speccy-eyed and glaked-looking and then just took off his clothes. And there he was with the biggest bollocks in showbusiness.”

“And that was the act?” I asked.

“Well,” said Karen, “a pint of beer might have been involved. I actually found some film of that recently – the last time he was on stage here – when we were making The Late n Live Guide to Comedy… and I wanted them to use it on the TV series, but they wouldn’t.”

“Because it was in bad taste?” I asked.

“Well,” Karen said, shrugging her shoulders, “they screened footage of Scott Capurro pissing on the stage and, although there was a big ‘X’ over his baby elephant trunk, you could see the glistening pee well enough.”

“Censorship is a variable art,” I said.

“Yes,” laughed Karen. “At least Malcolm never peed on stage.”

“Well, perhaps not in Edinburgh.” I said. “I once saw him go to the back of the stage at the Albany Empire in Deptford and pee during a show.”

“Well, that’s OK,” said Karen. “He had his back to the audience… With Malcolm, it wasn’t just about his appendage, it was about what he did. He always gave people a chance. I listened to him when he told me about the young Jerry Sadowitz – Oh – go on – Give him a chance! – and I did and that was something I always did do with Malcolm. He did play all the Big Three venues, as they then were, and he invented the Aaaaaaaaaaarghhh! at the beginning of show titles so he would get the first listing in the Fringe Programme. And he had the art of being noticed with publicity stunts – writing a review of his own show and getting it published by The Scotsman and all that. We all do still think about him today. Never forgotten.”

Karen Koren talks about Malcolm Hardee in this video made by the Gilded Balloon which opens with The Greatest Show on Legs, currently performing in Edinburgh (with Bob Slayer replacing the late Malcolm) for the first time in over 30 years:

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So there was this comic with cerebral palsy and no voice who auditioned as a singer on The X Factor yesterday…

Lee voices his amusement at yesterday’s X-Factor auditions

One of the joys of writing this daily blog is that people send me bizarre anecdotes.

This is certainly one, so pin back your eyes like you are Alex in A Clockwork Orange and read on.

Yesterday afternoon, I got an e-mail from a Jeff Lantern, who describes himself as “an enigmatic North East England based act” and who says: “I perform on the comedy circuit because no-one else will take me seriously”.

He said he had “recently met a new comic from Sunderland called Lee Ridley, aka ‘Lost Voice Guy’ who cannot physically talk. Today, he is auditioning in Newcastle to go on The X Factor.”

This successfully grabbed my attention, so I got in touch with Lee, who had just returned from the auditions. And this is what he told me:

Basically, I have cerebral palsy from when I was ill when I was a baby. This resulted in me losing my speech and having a weaker right side of the body (which means I walk funny). Instead of talking, I use a small computer called a Lightwriter to communicate with – although I use an Apple iPad on stage as it is clearer and more practical. I just type what I want to say and the iPad says it out loud. A bit like Stephen Hawking.

I only started doing comedy last month so I’m still building up my profile. I’ve only had three gigs so far. I started because I’d always enjoyed making people laugh and watching stand-up. I never thought I’d get to do it because of my disability. But then my mates suggested it might work. I thought about it for a bit and then decided to give it a go. I knew I’d regret it if I didn’t.

I already had some X Factor material in my act so, as it looked like it might be a boring Saturday, I thought it would be funny to audition for The X Factor as a singer and see what they said when I turned up. I decided to do I Believe I Can Fly because I thought it seemed apt in a deluded kind of way. I got up this morning at 6.00am to get to the auditions for 8.00am. Once there, I was put into ‘Pen B’ which was for disabled auditionees. I thought it apt that the staff referred to them as Pen A and Pen B as if we were animals going to the slaughter.

I was signed in by an assistant who talked to me through my communication device. This begs a question about how she expected me to sing when she could see I couldn’t talk. Was she just being polite? Two more people spoke to me in the same way and still no questions were asked. Good news for me!

We stood in the cold for an hour while X Factor production staff got people to sing Fog On The Tyne and Let’s Get Ready To Rumble. Stereotypical?  I was surprised they didn’t bring in the fat topless bloke from Newcastle games just for good measure. Or maybe Gazza with some chicken, a dressing gown and a fishing rod.

Then we were let into the venue – the Metro Radio ArenaOnce inside, we had to sit together and wait to be called for our audition. Everyone around me started practising and I did start to feel a tiny bit bad for potentially wasting someone’s opportunity. But not too bad.

When I finally got in for my audition (about two hours after arriving) – basically in the side corridors of the arena – I was greeted by two production assistant type people who were my judge and jury. I could see straight away that they weren’t sure what was going to happen. They asked me if I was going to sing, like they were double checking.

I broke into I Believe I Can Fly and the looks on their faces were priceless. You could tell they were still trying to figure out if I was serious or not. In my opinion, I quite obviously wasn’t (I even had a Lost Voice slogan on my t-shirt), but the sense of humour seemed to be lost in translation. I tried not to laugh too much and just sway along to the words. After a few verses and some very weird glances, they stopped me and told me I wasn’t going through to the next stage. Part of me thought they looked annoyed at me for being a twat and wasting their precious time. I hope they were anyway.

I asked if I had sounded too flat as I walked out.

Still not a smile.

As I said, I already had some X Factor material in my act, so I plan to add to it with what has taken place today. My biggest gig yet is coming up is next month – Sunday 8 April 2012 at Rib Ticklers’ 1st birthday in Hartlepool with special guest headliner Patrick Monahan.

I have decided to record my ‘losers song’ and put it online.

__________

Here it is:

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Shock jock Howard Stern backs farter Mr Methane for “America’s Got Talent”

Mr Methane, caped crusader of farting

If you read yesterday’s blog, you will know that British comedian Bob Slayer is apparently too outrageous for Australia. But what about the world’s only professional flatulist – British farter Mr Methane – on an American television network?

As of this week, infamous US shock jock Howard Stern is a judge on the TV show America’s Got Talent.

The producers of the show contacted my chum Mr Methane about appearing way back in 2008.

“They were very excited to get me over for the 2009 season,” says Mr M, “but unfortunately we couldn’t work the visa requirements for the show out, so it all came to nothing. I guess it’s really got to be an American show with American acts otherwise there’s no point in calling it America’s Got Talent“.

However, Mr Methane did appear on Das Supertalent – Germany’s Got Talent in 2010-2011 and got through to the semi-finals.

On Howard Stern’s Sirius radio show on Tuesday this week, Howard was asked by co-presenter Robin Quivers: “What would you do if Mr Methane showed up?”

“I’d put him through,” Howard replied. “I would. I think Mr Methane is fantastic. I think Mr Methane could be on Broadway. But they would never put him on NBC. That’s the problem. He couldn’t audition. But he’s funny. He’s got an act.”

When told Mr Methane was planning a book, Howard said: “Keep me out of that book!”

Then he mused: “I wonder if he could audition?… I guess they couldn’t show that on… Maybe network TV is… I was watching The Voice and that judge Blake said Kiss my ass! and they put that on NBC. Remember when they wouldn’t even less me even say Ass on radio?”

Told that Mr Methane auditioned on screen for Britain’s Got Talent, but did not get through, Howard said: “Oh I would let him through. In a minute, I’d let him through.”

At the 2009 auditions for Britain’s Got Talent, Simon Cowell called Mr. Methane “a disgusting creature,” but the video of the audition on YouTube has currently had over 17 million hits.

“To me,” said Howard Stern, “that guy’s a superstar. I’d make him a star on that show (America’s Got Talent). I’d put him through… I bet you he’d win. People love farting, but it’s not just farting – he’s funny. I told you, I would back that guy to go on Broadway more than those fucking Cirque du Soleil.

“Honestly… Honestly I’m saying this. I happen to think Mr Methane’s a genius. I told you I thought he’s funny and I would back him; I certainly would.

“I’m not making a joke. If we were in Vegas… I really would go over see the Mr Methane show… I’m not saying he’s everyone’s cup of tea, but he’s enough people’s that he could have a successful career there.

“I could only pray he’d be the winner of my first year on America’s Got Talent. I’d be so honoured. America’s gonna vote and I think America would vote for him. I do. I really do.”

Two clips from Howard Stern’s radio shows this Tuesday and Wednesday (total 5min 36sec) are online here

Meanwhile, back in the UK, I currently have a cold which includes a hacking cough which keeps waking me up at night. When I get woken up, I can remember my dreams, something I never normally do.

Last night, I woke up and I had been dreaming I was walking with a friend through a shopping mall in the Far East when we bumped into Comedy Cafe owner Noel Faulkner and a friend. The four of us went and had a chat in a telephone box while other people made phone calls. I was lying on the shelf.

What does this mean?

This is the second time I have woken up from a dream about Noel Faulkner.

Perhaps it is a nightmare.

I am scared.

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The Edinburgh Fringe? – “It is called show business and not show charity”

In yesterday’s blog, I wrote about two types of show at the Edinburgh Fringe.

In normal ‘paid’ shows, the audience pays for its tickets before seeing the show and reviewers and talent scouts for the media/showbiz industry mostly get free tickets because they potentially may publicise the show or further the performers’ careers.

At ‘free’ shows, people do not buy tickets in advance, but are encouraged to pay on exit and reviewers/talent scouts may be scowled-at if they do not pay. In yesterday’s blog, I suggested the fact that ‘industry’ people ironically do not pay for ‘paid’ shows but may be expected to pay for ‘free’ shows might discourage reviewers and talent scouts from attending free shows. They would, in effect, be paying to promote the shows/further the performers’ careers.

I quoted Peter Buckley Hill, organiser of the PBH Free Fringe in Edinburgh, as saying: “This is not something that concerns me greatly… Our performers are strongly advised to concentrate on entertaining the people in front of them, whoever they are, and not to entertain unrealistic dreams of discovery and sudden fame… What happens at paid shows is nothing to me either.  But in my view, both (the employers of) reviewers and competition judges should pay for their show tickets.”

There has been some reaction from other Fringe veterans to yesterday’s blog.

Kate Copstick, doyenne of Fringe comedy reviewers, ITV Show Me The Funny judge and a Malcolm Hardee Awards judge, Facebooked me: “Shame on you, you skinflint Fleming. I make a POINT of seeing as many free shows as I can and, yes, they are the only ones I end up paying for but, to coin a literary term, SO THE FUCK WHAT ? It is the right thing to do. If we don’t review goodly numbers of free shows then we are saying that money WILL buy you reviews. Not mine it won’t.”

American comedian Lewis Schaffer has used the Fringe’s ‘free’ show model in his twice-weekly Free Until Famous shows which re-start in London’s Soho tomorrow and in a mini-tour of UK arts centres which I blogged about recently. He says:

“Whether or not to let reviewers in for free is such a minor point and one easily addressed: give the promoters and industry people ‘get out of show free’ passes to drop in the performers’ jars. Simple. If a performer doesn’t want to accept them, he can post a notice at the entrance.

“Acts are willing to lose massive amounts of money just to be seen by entertainment industry people in Edinburgh. That’s always been the main benefit of putting on shows at the Big Four venues. Industry people are corralled, cuddled and coddled at the Assembly, Gilded Balloon, Pleasance and Underbelly. Is it worth it? Well, for many shows, yes.

“Why shouldn’t the free venues do the same?”

Alex Petty, who organises the Laughing Horse Free Festival at the Edinburgh Fringe (separately from PBH’s Free Fringe) says:

“I like the idea of tokens. It would be good to come up with a zero maintenance solution to this.”

Bob Slayer, who ran the Hive venue as part of the Laughing Horse Free Festival last year and who, this year, will be running his Alternative Edinburgh Fringe at the Hive with a mixture of ‘free’ shows in the afternoon and and ‘paid’ shows in the evening says:

“As a promoter I think, if this really is a problem, the free shows should look at a low-maintenance way to address it. Personally, I only really know one of the reviewers that ‘does’ my Fringe shows – Kate Copstick from The Scotsman – and she always drops in a fiver and buys me copious amounts of Jagermeister. I think the other reviewers may have heard how expensive it is to review me and sneak in quietly.

“Copstick is one of the good people. But the question is Do you only want to be reviewed by good people?? I am more than happy for evil, tight-fisted people to enjoy and review my show too. (I fear they might be my target audience.) So this year, instead of paying for PR I will offer a bottle of whisky and/or a hand-job to anyone who reviews my nonsense. And, just to keep this creatively pure, I will give extra for bad reviews.

“However, I think your blog has opened up some wider and bigger questions beyond reviewers.

“I cannot agree with your statement that, at the Fringe, performers (quite rightly) assume they will not make any profit. This is the biggest single problem at the Fringe today.

“Two million tickets are sold at the Edinburgh Fringe every year, so someone is making money. A lot of money. This myth that performers should expect to lose money has been very successfully spread by the people who are making the cash in order to protect their annual golden goose. If there is not enough money left for performers – after venues, PR people, poster people, publications, marketing services etc have taken their cut – then the obvious solution is that we cannot afford all these services and we should re-structure everything so that all the money doesn’t disappear into these people’s pockets.

“That is what we are aiming to do with the Alternative Fringe – paid shows with no rent/guarantee or other hidden costs, plus low ticket pricing and efficient marketing so that the performer earns from the first ticket sold.

“I also find myself totally agreeing with PBH and have very little to add when he says performers should concentrate on entertaining the people in front of them, whoever they are, and not to entertain unrealistic dreams of discovery and sudden fame. The former leads to satisfaction in a job well done; the latter to frustration and the sort of nervous breakdown behaviour often associated with Fringe performers.

“However, as admirable as PBH’s non-profit stance is, this is still a business model that needs to be sustained and it is hardly wise to ignore the industry and reviewers altogether. Performers want to be able to keep performing and/or build a career.

“Reviews, along with word-of-mouth, recommendations, online activity, marketing etc, can all help them put bums-on-seats. But it is a question of balance and priorities. Find and develop an audience and the industry will come – Kunt and the Gang proved last year that, if you create a buzz amongst ‘normal’ people, then the industry and press will follow, no matter how inappropriate your act or name is!”

Lewis Schaffer adds:

“Someone in Edinburgh is certainly making money out of the free shows. It is the pub owner who sells alcohol to the punters coming in droves for free entertainment. The ‘free’ shows hinge on punters drinking. How British is that!?

“No punters drinking mean no shows, no PBH Free Fringe, no Laughing Horse Free Festival, no Lewis Schaffer is Free until Famous, 18th Year, Again, at the Counting House this August.

“Peter Buckley Hill provides entertainment that draws punters to the pubs, which makes Peter Buckley Hill a promoter for pubs in Edinburgh.

“I don’t have an axe to grind with the dude. His existence doesn’t hurt or harm what I do enough for it to matter. I am just a participant doing a free show. Though it does hurt me a little when he calls what he does a charity and holds benefits and makes free shows seem like charity cases, which my show isn’t. I don’t want people to feel sorry for me any more than is necessary!

“All performers at the free festivals are just alcohol salesmen, really. If PBH wants to sell himself as some saviour of entertainers or some charity for lost performers, that is one thing. The truth is something else.

“Everyone involved has a business model: the acts who want a venue at the lowest cost, the pubs who want drinkers in their pubs, the promoters who need money to conduct their businesses and live (… Oh, PBH isn’t doing it for the money? But the Free Fringe needs money to operate. And PBH has a ‘business plan’ to have his needs met as the saviour of entertainers and the liberator of worker artists.)

“The Fringe is part of show business. It is called show business and not show charity.”

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How to sell yourself to a TV producer + how to control uncontrollable talent

(This blog was also published on the Chortle comedy website and in the Huffington Post)

Yesterday, I had tea with a very good but not yet famous comedy performer.

He was, quite rightly, lamenting the homogenised nature of comedians on television and said he did not think he was suitable for television because he liked to try to be original.

This is a complicated area because, much as I admire Michael McIntyre’s act – and I do –  I prefer to see an act which can be brilliant but which may, on occasions not quite work – rather than an act which is slickly guaranteed to be effective 100% of the time and exactly the same every performance.

Yesterday, to the very good but not yet famous comedy performer, I mentioned a middle-ranking English comedian whom I admire.

He has an act which he performs and it is a very good act which he regularly updates and tweaks. When this comedian has a good audience, he is reliably funny. Very good value for money.

When he has a rowdy audience, however, he is far, far better. Because, if he is heckled or interrupted in some way, it sets him off at a tangent from his regular act. He soars away from sentence to sentence to idea to idea and can be brilliantly funny, then he comes back to the backbone of his regular act, then he will soar away again on surreal tangents, playing to the unpredictable audience’s reaction.

This is not necessarily what TV wants, though.

Another act we talked about yesterday used to be reliably unreliable. The comedian updated and varied his act regularly but there was a certain predictability about it. Perhaps 20% or 30% of the act did not work. Perhaps 70% or 60% of the act would be successfully funny, though nothing special. Very often the remaining 10% of the act, though, could be utterly brilliant – sheer near-genius comedy. The downside was that, occasionally, that 10% did not happen. But it was always worth seeing the comedian’s act because of even the promise of that 10% of totally original genius.

Again, though, that is not what television wants.

Television is an expensive business and requires an act which can be pretty-much guaranteed not to fail or sag. You do not want to throw away an entire recording. You have to know what to expect. The director ideally needs to know exactly what the act will do verbally, visually and spatially – where he or she will be on the stage – so the cameras will catch the right angles. And the act is best for the director when it is exactly the same in the rehearsal, the dress rehearsal and during the recording.

Reliability is what TV ideally needs.

But reliability and comedic genius are not necessarily the same thing.

So does this explain why there are so many middling-but-not-very-original comedians on TV?

Yes and no.

My advice to the comedian with whom I had tea yesterday was the same as it always is to comedians.

If you approach a television researcher or producer, your viewpoint should not be that you are a small unknown comedian approaching a bigtime person who can help your career develop. Your mental viewpoint should be that you want to help the television researcher or producer develop their own career.

The TV person has a life and career just as you do. They are struggling to maintain their job, to get new and better jobs just as much as you are. You are dealing with an individual human being not a large monolithic company.

Keep repeating to yourself:

“This other person is a frail human being too. He/she eats, shits, farts, gets ill, needs to make money to survive and will die alone just like me.”

The way that TV person can develop their career is by appearing to spot talent other people cannot spot or have not yet spotted. So, perhaps surprisingly, they really are looking for originality although – this is important – they are looking for “controllable originality”. They really are not looking for someone who is a clone of 25 other comics people have already seen on TV.

That will not get them a promotion from researcher to producer or get them a job on a better TV show with a higher salary. They will succeed if they can spot “the next new big thing” before anyone else. Even if they cannot find originality, they have to be able to say to the person above them who takes decisions (or to the person who may give them their next job) that they found this act with mainstream or at least accessible cult appeal who is actually very original and unlike anything seen before.

The technical term for this in the world of television is “bullshitting”.

There is, at this point, though, a fine balance.

The thing they are looking for is “controllable originality”.

The fine line between these two words is complicated by how effective the producer or director is. The better the producer or director, the less controllable the comedian has to be.

Several years ago, a TV director I know who lives in a far-flung corner of the UK stayed at my home in London while he was directing a TV series for a minor channel. He was directing an unknown comedian in a show which roamed around the streets and, by and large, had no script. It relied on the comedian.

The show was semi-anarchic and – as I know because I worked on the legendarily anarchic children’s show Tiswas – you have to be very organised to create effectively what appears to be anarchy. If you do not have control, the whole thing may fall apart into tedious, disjointed irrelevance.

The director of this new would-be anarchic TV show would come home of an evening raving to me about how irresponsible and uncontrollable the comedian – who was taking drugs at the time – was.

The director would tell me all the irresponsible, uncontrollable things the comedian had done and I would think, but not say:

“Well, that sounds great to me. You should be going with the comedian and trying to cover what he does, rather than keep him to the rough script you are trying to follow.”

What was required was a totally self-confident director which this one was not. The director had to be confident that he could edit his way out of any problems and this one was not.

The comedian was a young Russell Brand.

I was also at the studio recording of the first episode in an expensive  TV series starring Michael Barrymore. I knew the producer who was – and is – an utterly brilliant director of entertainment shows. This, though, was one of his first shows as a producer.

Michael Barrymore (after he got over his initial urge to imitate John Cleese) could be wonderfully original – almost the definitive uncontrollable comedian who needed a strongly confident producer and/or director.

In the TV recording I saw, which involved Barrymore going into the audience a lot and interacting with real people, the show kept being stopped because Barrymore kept going off-script. The floor manager would stop the recording and, relaying directions from ‘the box’, remind Barrymore that he had to say or do X or Y.

They were trying to keep him and control him within a structure which was too tight. Barrymore had to have a structure to control the potential anarchy. But it had to be a loose structure and you had to put him on a long leash and just follow what he did. The producer in question did manage to do this as the series progressed.

One brilliant piece of lateral thinking which I did work on was an entertainment series for the late but not too lamented company BSB (later bought by Sky).

It was a large, complicated variety show and the producer employed a director who had little experience of directing entertainment shows. But what he did have was (a) a sense of humour and (b) lots and lots of experience directing sports events.

This is relevant because directing a sports event means covering an event which has a loose structure but within which you do not know exactly what is going to happen. The director has to be prepared for anything to happen and to have the cameras in the right place to catch it when it does.

He was a very confident director working for a justifiably very confident producer and it worked well although, because it was screened on BSB, it got zilch viewers.

This comes back to what researchers and producers are looking for when they see or are approached by comedians and, indeed, any performer.

They think they want and are looking for true originality… but, if they are not particularly talented researchers or producers, they will compromise according to their lack of talent.

The phrase is “controllable originality”.

The more talented the TV person, the more important the word “originality” is.

The less talented the TV person, the more important the word “controllable” becomes.

As we can see from current TV shows, there are an awful lot of less talented and less confident TV people around.

But it still remains the case that, to sell a truly original act to a TV person, you have to emphasise its originality… though you also have to emphasise its controllability and potential mainstream or large cult appeal as well as suck on the TV person’s ego like a giant tit – which the TV person probably is.

The key thing is not to look at the ‘sell’ from your own viewpoint as a little unknown person approaching a big TV company.

You have to look at the situation from the small and possibly untalented TV person’s viewpoint –

“What will this performer do for ME? How will using this performer advance my own career and increase my own job prospects?”

Do not compromise on the originality of your act – just sell it with ‘spin’ appropriate to the wanker you are approaching.

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True tales from the Comedians’ Cricket Match?

Apparently, during filming of the new movie Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, author John Le Carré was phoned up and a key line was added. It was during a scene in which new information was assessed and the line was:

“Patently a fabrication from beginning to end. Just could be the real thing.”

I have found that the more unlikely a story, the more likely it is to be true. When comedian say something likely, it is often made up; when they say something too OTT to be true… it is often a toning-down of a far more OTT truth.

Yesterday, I was at the comedians’ annual cricket match against the locals at Staplefield in West Sussex. It seems to be held every six months.

Cricket is possibly the dullest game ever invented. But you certainly meet some interesting people and hear some interesting stories at the comedians’ cricket match.

While theoretically watching, I got talking to a retired fireman who used to work in Slough. He told me that, occasionally, he would cycle into work to Slough from Staplefield, a journey of 54 miles. It would take him three hours but keep him fit. And he once cycled from Slough to Northampton and back – a 140 mile round trip – to see a girlfriend.

Clearly Staplefield harbours some hardy people.

One comedian at the match told me about not appearing on the Sky TV talent show Don’t Stop Me Now in which contestants are ejected in various odd ways including being jerked up into the air by a rope or wire or dropped through a trapdoor.

The comic in question was told he could not use the word “Nazis” in his routine because “people might be offended”. Not offended by the routine or the gag, which was inoffensive, but by any use of the word “Nazis” in any sentence. Another problem was that he turned out to be too heavy for either the rope or the trapdoor. Sky did not use him on the show.

Another comic (and it is fairly obvious to other comics who this is) told me that, in horse racing, there had been a fad a few years ago – if a fellow jockey was asleep – to drop either snot or sperm onto the unconscious person’s closed eyes.

“Snot and sperm,” I was told, “are both at body temperature, so the person doesn’t wake up. But, when they do, they find their eyelids are stuck together for a little bit and they think they are blind… How we used to laugh!”

This story vies with another for most bizarre story of yesterday.

I heard the other story at local pub the Victory Inn from a guy of about 30 who claimed he had been in the Army and had been in Afghanistan. His tour over there is not actually relevant, but I mentioned to him the story I have blogged about before of the Irish Republican sympathiser who was put unconscious on a plane to New York.

The story I was told yesterday was a tale of a personal dispute between a couple of Army men and a non-Army person who had screwed them out of money. When the money could not be recovered, they removed him from his house one night, drugged him so he was unconscious, put him in a container lorry, drove it to the Balkans to a place they knew in a forest on a remote hillside miles from any town or village. They stripped him, gave him a tab of LSD and left him there on the hillside, naked and presuming he was still in the UK.

“What happened to him?” I asked.

“I’ve got no idea,” the man in the pub told me. “Not interested.”

He shrugged his shoulders.

The story seems unlikely but, perhaps because of that, it has the ring of truth about it.

Who can tell betwixt reality and fantasy, especially if you find yourself naked and alone on a hillside where any locals you meet will be speaking in an unknown language.

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