Tag Archives: Tim Vine

Punny Darren Walsh’s Cheep Laughs

Not just puns, but drawings... Cheep Laughs

Not just puns, but Darren’s drawings

“You must be a nightmare to live with,” I told UK Pun Champion Darren Walsh yesterday.

“Yes,” he agreed. “My poor girlfriend. I wouldn’t want to be her. Being the girlfriend of a comedian is hard enough, but being the girlfriend of a comedian who relentlessly puns is worse. We’ll be eating bread and I’ll be trying to get a rise out of her: but that’s the yeast of her worries.”

“Other girls,” I said, “want their boyfriends to be more interesting. She would probably prefer to have one who’s duller. She probably wants to make you into a gardener or something.”

“Make me into a gardener? said Darren. “That’s a cheap dig. Soil you could think of?”

Today, Darren publishes a book entitled (appropriately for a pun champion) Cheep Laughs.

It is published by Century, part of Random House, the biggest publisher in the world.

Cheep Laughs: Darren Walsh’s book launch on the River Thames last night

Cheep Laughs: Darren Walsh’s book launch on the River Thames last night

Perhaps also appropriately for a pun champion, the book launch last night was on water – the River Thames.

“Why not a self-published book?” I asked Darren. “Random House is the Big Time.”

“Just luck, really,” Darren told me. “Tim Vine did a joke book which did incredibly well but he didn’t want to do another one and that paved the way a little bit because they were looking for something similar. I was going to self-publish my book and then Random House got in contact after they read about me winning the Pun Championship. They asked me if I wanted to make a book and I said: I’ve already made it. I walked into their office with an already-printed prototype and that was it.

“Because I’m such a geek, I had all my gags on a massive spreadsheet with a grading system from 1 to 5 – good to bad – everything categorised – for 2,000 jokes. So, when they said What are your best jokes? all I had to do was search by Top Quality ones and just give them that.”

“So it all went smoothly?” asked.

“Except that, when I signed the contract,” said Darren, “I posted it to them and they did not receive it. I had to send them another copy. Then I realised: Maybe it’s the address. I was sending it to Random House and maybe the postman just delivered it to a random house. That’s true. It went missing.”

“Do they just have European rights?” I asked.

Dyslexic Darren purveyor of pure puns

Dyslexic Darren purveyor of pure puns for public perusal

“I’m actually not very good at reading contracts,” said Darren. “I’m dyslexic, but I didn’t know until I did a test when I went to university. I was thrown out of university because I got drunk and impersonated the Course leader. Before that, I was just failing everything. I failed all my GCSEs. I can’t write anything. My friend Leo Kearse says if I write anything longer than a pun, it just reads like a retarded farm worker giving a witness statement. I’m no good at writing long things. The PR person at Random House has asked me to come up with ideas for features we can send to newspapers that I can write and had to say I can’t write properly.”

“Will you do a second book?” I asked.

“It depends how well this one does, but the second book is pretty much written because I’ve got over 2,200 jokes… 813 are in this first book along with about 300 drawings. The second book is already half-written jokes-wise. I just need to do more drawings.”

“What were you like at school?” I asked.

“I was always drawing and making loads of music; those were the two main things at school. I used to make lots of electronic music. I guess you could call it electronica.”

“That sounds,” I said, “like it comes from a different part of the brain.”

“Not really,” said Darren. “A lot of the people who like puns are musicians. The majority of people who come up to me after gigs and say I like that play the guitar or something like that. I think music and puns are not totally disassociated.”

“Supposedly music and mathematics are connected,” I said. “Maybe with music and puns you are connecting separate isolated notes and words and spotting some way they will connect.”

“I dunno,” said Darren. “But I would say there’s definitely a link between music and puns.”

“So you are a songsmith?” I asked.

“A lyricist? No. I don’t write songs; I make electronic music. People who are musicians and who like puns… That doesn’t come from the lyrics but from the music. I think composing must be a similar part of the brain.”

On YouTube, there is a video of Darren at the World Pun Championships

“So are you a frustrated muso?” I asked.

“Yeah. I’d say there’s quite a lot of frustrated musos on the comedy circuit. The puns are one thing, but the animations and video comedy elements are stuff I’d also like to get off the ground.”

“Your day job is working as a  a freelance animator,” I said.

“Yes,” said Darren. “A lot are online ads. And I’ve now got a lot of comedy videos on Vine and my own YouTube channel. I’m starting to hone my animation skills into my comedy now; I thought I might as well.”

“How do you write your puns?” I asked. “Do you sit down for an hour every day?”

“No,” said Darren. “If I sit down, nothing comes out. I’m constantly writing jokes. I just get my phone out and write them down. I’m constantly thinking them. They just come into my head. There’s no wiring process; I’m just always on. If I’m on my bike – which is where I get most of my ideas – I’ve got a clamp to attach the phone so that, if I get an idea, I can just type it in.”

“You’re a dangerous man,” I said.

“Yeah. What could go wrong while cycling round London?”

“Your full show at the Edinburgh Fringe wasn’t just verbal puns, though,” I said. “There was a lot of variation: visual puns, drawings and everything. But it only ran half an hour.”

Darren Walsh - not just words

Darren – not just words

“Even though I mix it up a lot,” explained Darren, “I think half an hour is enough. Listening to puns is a bit like sitting a maths test. Puns are basically just word puzzles. The brain of the person sitting in the audience has to figure out what the punchline is. If you have an hour of that, it’s very exhausting, no matter how good the puns are.

“I have an hour of material now, from doing two completely separate half hour shows. But, personally, I don’t think I’ve got an hour show. If you stuck the two together, all you’d have is an hour worth of gags, which is not what I want. I am going to do an hour show at the Fringe next year, I just need to work on it. Not just an hour of jokes. There will be a story or… It’s something I have to figure out before next August.”

“A lot of people break through with an autobiographical show,” I suggested, “but that’s quite difficult to do with puns.”

“Anything’s possible with puns,” said Darren.

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Comedy without gags but with tragedy

Liam Lonergan: man of comedy

Liam Lonergan: man looking for a good laugh

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

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

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

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

________________________

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

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

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

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

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

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

Janey Godley’s bestselling autobiography

Janey Godley’s 2005 autobiography

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

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

Liam: (Laughs)

John: That’s not funny.

Liam: No. No.

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

Liam: Is it because, like, an expectation?

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

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

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

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

Steptoe and Son - a tragedy

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

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

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

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

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

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

So ‘serious’ comedy I like.

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

Liam: Uncomfortable?

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

… CONTINUED HERE

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The best way to flyer for an Edinburgh Fringe show – use mice and terrorists

Sameena Zehra and husband Mike in Edinburgh yesterday

Yesterday, I went to see Sameena Zehra’s totally fascinating Edinburgh Fringe show Tea With Terrorists.

Afterwards, I got talking to her husband Mike, who flyers in the street for her show.

“I’ve been a musician all my life,” he told me. “A Blues singer. My name is Dr Blue.

“I love flyering. I love the challenge of flyering because it’s a 5 or 6 second performance. It’s the time it takes for someone to walk past you. I’ve got to get their attention in those few seconds. They need to know what the show is; where it is; and I need to get them to take one of the flyers.

“I never ever give a flyer to anybody. They always take them from me. Because, if you force a flyer on someone, they will throw it on the ground. I’ve got a patter which I use. It’s got various forms. It’s about getting someone’s attention but mostly their eye contact. As soon as I’ve got eye contact, they’re going to take a flyer.”

“So,” I asked, “why am I, a passing person, going to be interested in this show by a comedian I’ve possibly never heard of?”

“Well,” Mike explained, “the show itself has got to have a very catchy title. So Tea With Terrorists... Immediately people’s ears prick up. If I get eye contact, then I have another line – where it is, what time it’s on, the fact it’s free. But, if they’re waivering and they’re still smiling as they walk away, I’ll go:

Sameena has the full backing of her husband

No tourists or terrorists are harmed during the performance of Tea With Terrorists.

“And that’s when I’ve got them… Then you can extend that 5 or 6 second window by adding a bit more patter. Once they’ve taken the flyer, I can usually stop them and talk to them.”

“Do you say And it’s my wife?” I asked.

“I do sometimes,” he told me. “Once I’ve got them, there’s then a patter which I’ll use to talk about the show. I give them four key elements without giving anything away.”

“And they are?”

“Sameena did actually accidentally have tea with terrorists. She was nearly shot in the Green Zone in Kabul. She has got a grandmother who curses. And a friend who is frightened of sheep… Now you’re smiling,” he told me.

“If they’re not smiling by the end of those four,” he continued, “they’re probably not going to come to the show.”

“Flyering does work better,” I suggested, “if you’re a performer or a close blood relation.”

“Well, obviously,” agreed Mike, “I have a huge emotional commitment in this. I’ve watched the process develop. This show hasn’t just fallen out of the sky. It’s a writing process that’s been going on for 18 months. Sameena brought the show here to Edinburgh last year, when it was called Punching Mice.”

Punching mice?” I asked.

“Well,” he said, “that was an even better title to sell. I just stood on the street corner yelling PUNCHING MICE! and people came up to me and asked What the bloody hell are you talking about?”

“It was an earlier version of this show?” I asked.

“Yes. There used to be a sequence in the old show about punching mice as a form of stress relief.”

Sameena Zehra and her good luck panda without Jon Snow

Later, I asked Sameena about this.

“It’s pretty much the same story,” she said, “but it’s changed and it’s tighter. When I did Edinburgh last year, I had no idea what I was doing; I was pissing in the wind and it was a steep learning curve, but it was brilliant.”

“There are only really three comedians who tell gags in this country,” I suggested to Sameena, vastly over-generalising. “Jimmy Carr, Milton Jones and Tim Vine. Everyone else is telling stories not gags.”

“Well, I’m not a punchline comedian,” she said. “I’ve been doing this for about a year and a half. I’m not a comedian yet. I am a storyteller and I will be a comedian. The new show I’m writing is much more comic, but I’ll still be a storytelling comedian.

“Tea With Terrorists is very much about fear being redundant: you have to live with joy, you have to deal with stuff. The next show I’m writing is about how we end up becoming the people we are.

“The working title is If Jon Snow Were My Dad, because I love Jon Snow and if he had been my dad instead of the emotionally incontinent parents I had, would I have been a different person? How much of our lives is inborn, how much accidental? I’m not going to say any of that directly in my show, but it will come out through the stories.

“It’s going to have lots of stories from by my boarding school days in India. I went to a school run by a Socialist headmaster and started by Henry Lawrence, who was a British army officer. He started it in 1857 for the children of British Army officers. It was very very weird.”

Sounds ideal for Edinburgh.

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American comedian Lewis Schaffer – always infuriating, sometimes inventive

London-based American comic Lewis Schaffer can be utterly infuriating to work with.

I know. I have worked with him.

If you can call it work.

But, after a tsunami of indecision and self-doubt, he will occasionally come up with brilliant ideas.

And, equally often, he will talk rubbish.

I had him on the phone a few weeks ago – after he had played a gig in some provincial theatre – saying he felt embarrassed to charge people for tickets to come and see his comedy shows.

“I feel like a con-man,” he told me. “What if they don’t like my show? What if they don’t like me? I will have ripped them off. You don’t pay up-front in a restaurant. You pay after you’ve eaten the meal and know what it was like. In no other area of life do you pay before you know what you are getting.”

“Lewis,” I said, exasperated. “In almost every area of life people pay up-front. It is called shopping.”

He ignored me. Today he has issued a press release saying:

“It bothers me to ask for money before a punter knows what they’re getting. Just because my show has been recommended by newspapers or because I look great in a suit or come from New York doesn’t mean they’ll like what I do. If they do like it, THEN they’ll give me what they think it’s worth.

“I hate disappointing people. I’ve disappointed my parents. I’ve disappointed my ex-wife and my kids. I’ve let America and the Jews down. I don’t want to disappoint any more people than I have to.”

Pure Lewis Schaffer.

Now for a major explanatory detour. Stick with me, dear reader.

I know I am going to get at least one complaint about this.

Hello PBH.

Rising comedians are almost obliged to go to the Edinburgh Fringe every year. It is the biggest arts festival – and therefore the biggest showcase – in the world.

Once upon a time, going to the Edinburgh Fringe every August was relatively simple to understand.

Each performer paid their venue an inordinately large amount of money up-front to hire the performance space; an average of around only six people per day paid to see the show; and the performer lost a shedload of money but gained that vital 0.0001% chance of being talent-spotted and/or getting an agent or radio series or TV series and becoming a temporary millionaire.

In their dreams.

Oh, I forgot to mention the cost of accommodation in Edinburgh – possibly £1,000 for a one-bedroom flat and £2,000 or so for a two-bedroom flat – plus the cost of flyers, posters, transport and lots of other sundries.

The main problem, though, was and is the cost of venues. There is a fee to hire the place and then the venue takes around 40% of the box office earnings plus VAT plus you may be forced to pay around £500 for a listing in the big venues’ brochure as well as the £300-ish cost of appearing in the main Fringe programme. And over a thousand quid for a quarter page ad in the main Fringe programme. Plus the cost of getting it designed and formatted.

One year, the very successful and very funny comic Tim Vine paid for a single giant poster – we are talking vast here – which said, simply, that he was NOT appearing at the Fringe.

It must have cost him a fortune but it was the talk of the Fringe and probably cost him less than the cost of travelling to, staying in and performing at Edinburgh – and it certainly got him just as much publicity and attention as he would have got if he had put on a 28-day show. Meanwhile, for the 28 days of the Fringe, he could perform elsewhere for better money.

The Edinburgh Fringe experience for a performer has been described as standing in a cold shower for three weeks while tearing up £20 and £50 notes. Sadly, I have forgotten which comic said that: a reflection on the uncertain benefit of writing good gags.

This losing-shedloads-of-money-at-the-Fringe equation was changed in 1997 when Peter Buckley Hill (the PBH mentioned above) put on his show Peter Buckley Hill And Some Comedians in a venue without being charged a venue fee: the pub venue was happy enough to receive the extra drink sales generated by audiences at his show. He also did not charge any admission fee to the audience: they only paid whatever they liked at the end if they had enjoyed the show.

The idea of free shows at the Fringe really took off around 2005/2006 by which time PBH and comedy promoter Laughing Horse were jointly promoting lots of shows by various performers.

Inevitably, the two fell out so, from 2007, there have been two sets of free shows at Edinburgh in August: the PBH Free Fringe and the Laughing Horse Free Festival, both of them under the over-all umbrella of the vast Edinburgh Fringe.

The format for both of these two freebie empires is that the performers do not pay to hire their venues… the audiences do not pay up-front to see the shows… and there is a bucket of some kind at the end so you can give your appreciation by paying whatever you think the show was worth.

Lewis Schaffer had successful years at paid venues on the Fringe in 2000 and 2008 and still lost money. At the Fringe, “successful” means breaking even or losing only a small amount of money.

Since then, Lewis Schaffer (he is always called ‘Lewis Schaffer’, never ‘Lewis’) has performed as part of the Laughing Horse Free Festival, usually doing two shows each day – and filling his rooms.

He brought this idea – basically PBH’s original Free Fringe idea – to London in 2009, performing a twice-per-week (sometimes thrice-per-week) show Lewis Schaffer is Free Until Famous at the Source Below club in Soho. He now claims – and I think he has to be right – that it is the longest-running solo comedy show in London.

And it is free. You only pay only if you like the show and, at the end, you throw however much you want to (or nothing) into a bucket.

Now Lewis Schaffer has, in a suitably ramshackle way, organised his own mini-tour by persuading arts centres around the country (so far only in England) to give him venues for free and to stage The Lewis Schaffer is Free Until Famous Tour.

He says: “Lee Mack suggested I take my show on tour. I know: You don’t think Lee Mack knows me, but he does. You can ask him. On the other hand… just wish me luck.”

I do. Though who knows if it will work?

“Look,” he says, “I think that only I could pull this off. Better known comics don’t have to and worse comics wouldn’t get the gigs and surely couldn’t get the money. No-one gives money for a bad time, no matter how much the comic begs. Who else would have the nerve to ask a British audience for money? Only an American would have the chutzpah.”

Obviously – if you know Lewis – at the time of writing this blog, he has not actually put his tour details on his website. But the upcoming shows – the first is only four days away – are:

10 December 2011 – The Nook, Northampton

27 January 2012 – The Plough Art Centre, Great Torrington

4  February 2012 – The Bromsgrove Artrix

20 April 2012 – Colchester Arts Centre

27 April 2012 – Cambridge Junction

21 July 2012    The Belgrade, Coventry

Now, if only he could get some self-confidence…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whither British comedy?

Who knows?

Not me.

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Nine more innocent questions posed by first-time Edinburgh Fringe comedians

A while ago, I blogged Answers to nine common questions asked by innocent first-time performers at the Edinburgh Fringe.

As the Fringe is only a fortnight away – and as I could not bloody think of anything else to blog about today – I felt compelled to answer nine more mythical questions posed by comedians:

1. IF THERE ARE ONLY TWO PEOPLE IN THE AUDIENCE, SHOULD I CANCEL THE SHOW?

No. Even if there is only one person in the audience, perform the show. You do not know who is in the audience (particularly at the Free Fringe and the Free Festival where there are no comp tickets). I have blogged before about an Edinburgh Fringe show performed in the early 1990s by then-unknown comedian Charlie Chuck. There were only four people in the audience. He performed the show. Two of the audience members were preparing an upcoming BBC TV series The Smell of Reeves and Mortimer and, as a direct result, Charlie Chuck was cast as ‘Uncle Peter’ in the series.

2. BUT IF I GET LOW AUDIENCES, I AM A FAILURE, SURELY?

Very possibly, sunshine, but not necessarily. In reality, it means you are an average Edinburgh Fringe performer. Unless you are on TV, you will not get full audiences unless there is astonishing word-of-mouth about your show. Scots comedian Kevin Bridges could not fill a matchbox, even in Scotland. He appeared on Michael McIntyre’s Comedy Roadshow on BBC1. After that, he was filling auditoriums the size of Bono’s ego. What is important at the Edinburgh Fringe is not the size of the audience but the quality of the audience. It is not How Many? but Who? which is important. And don’t call me Shirley.

3. BUT I AM GOING TO THE FRINGE TO GET SEEN BY AUDIENCES, AREN’T I?

No you are not. You are going to the Edinburgh Fringe to lose money. A comic whose name I have tragically forgotten, so cannot credit, likened it to standing in a cold shower tearing up £50 notes. You may have sold your grandmother into sexual slavery to afford this trip to the Fringe, but you are not in Edinburgh to perform shows to ordinary people. If you wanted to do that, you could have gone to the Camden Fringe or down the local pub on a Friday night. You are going to Edinburgh, the biggest arts festival in the world, to get seen by critics and, with luck, by radio and TV people, all of whom can boost your career. If you can create good word-of-mouth among the small audiences who do see your shows at the Fringe, then that may attract a few of the influential people.

4. I AM A COMEDIAN. AUDIENCES ARE NOT LAUGHING ALL THE WAY THROUGH MY SHOW. WHY?

Well, probably because you have a shit show, so tweak it or consider a career working at a call centre in Glasgow. There are some comics who should reconsider their lifestyle and bank balances. On the other hand, most comics are insanely insecure for very little reason. I have sat through many a show where the comedian thinks the audience did not like part of the show because it did not get enough laughs but I know for sure, because I was in the audience, that the punters enjoyed the show tremendously. They were just mesmerised in rapt attention during the quiet but important bits.

5. BUT WHY DON’T AUDIENCES LAUGH AT EVERY LINE?

Possibly because a good comedy script is not 100% laugh-at-every-line. Not over a whole hour. If you think your show is that funny you are either deluded, on cocaine or have a serious psychological problem (not that the last is any drawback in comedy). Watching a man take 10 seconds to jump off a cliff 66 times in a row is not exciting; it exhausts and bores the viewer after a while. What is exciting is a rollercoaster. A build-up followed by an adrenaline rush. Excitement followed by relief followed by excitement followed by relief followed by a climax. Note I never mentioned sex. An hour-long show is about pacing. If you remove the build-up before the punch-line, you will lose the laughter on the punch-line. And I still did not mention sex. Of course, the highly-experienced comic can get three subsidiary titters in the build-up followed by a big belly-laugh on the punch-line. Even (billed in alphabetical order) the brilliant Jimmy Carr, Milton Jones and Tim Vine, who mostly deal in one-liners, have pacing where their audiences can relax amid the laughs. Just like sex, in my experience.

6. SHOULD I WORRY IF I DO NOT GET REVIEWS?

Yes, but it is largely a matter of luck. I always tell people they have to play the Edinburgh Fringe on three consecutive years. The first year, no-one will notice you are there. The second year, you have some idea of how the Fringe works. The third year, people will think you are an Edinburgh institution and the media will pay some attention to you. You have to go for three consecutive years. If you miss a year, when you return, you are, in effect, re-starting at Year One. It is not just audiences but critics who change year-by-year. Critics reviewing shows at the Fringe may not have been doing it two years ago.

7. I ONLY HAVE 30 MINUTES OF GOOD MATERIAL. WAS I WRONG TO ATTEMPT TO DO A 60-MINUTE SHOW?

Yes. You are an idiot. You should have delayed your trip to the Fringe and gone next year. Going before you are fully ready is never a good idea. Yes, go up and play a few gigs on other people’s shows. Yes, go up as part of a three or four person show. But, if you are doing your first solo 60-minute show and you have anything less than 80 minutes of good material, you risk rapid ego-destruction.

8. IF I GET REVIEWS, ARE THE NUMBER OF STARS IMPORTANT?

In Edinburgh, absolutely. The stars are everything – provided you get above three stars. Put four or five stars on your posters and flyers – with short quotes – immediately. All your competitors – and, in Edinburgh ALL other performers, however seemingly friendly, are your deadly competitors – will be using the number of stars on a review to boost their own ego or to try and deflate yours. After the Fringe is over, the stars mean bugger all. They are unlikely to bring in crowds on a wet Thursday in Taunton. But their real value lies next year at the Fringe when you can quote them and they will have some effect. And always remember the admirable enterprise of the late comic Jason Wood. Highly influential Scotsman critic Kate Copstick gave his Fringe show a one star review. The next morning, all his posters in Edinburgh proudly displayed a pasted-on strip saying “A STAR” (The Scotsman)

9. WILL I WIN THE PERRIER PRIZE?

No. Partly because it no longer exists; they seem to call it something different every year. But mostly because you just won’t. Don’t be silly. Fantasy is a valuable part of the performer’s art, but never fully believe your own fantasy. You stand a better chance of winning one of the increasingly-prestigious Malcolm Hardee Awards for comedy – the longest-running comedy awards with the same name at the Fringe. And, unlike their insignificant competitors, the Malcolm Hardee Awards are guaranteed to run until the year 2017. I allegedly organise them, but intentionally try not to be too organised as that would be lacking in respect to Malcolm’s memory. Don’t bother to apply to me because there is no application process, plus it interferes with my chocolate-eating. Your show format is probably neither that original nor, frankly, that good and we will almost certainly hear about anything which actually IS that original. In Edinburgh, word-of-mouth is the strongest thing after a deep-fried Mars Bar soaked in whisky for 20 minutes. The Malcolm Hardee Award judges this year are (in alphabetical order) famed Scotsman critic and Show Me The Funny judge Kate Copstick, inconsequential little old me,  The Times’ esteemed comedy critic Dominic Maxwell and the wildly prolific freelance Jay Richardson. Please feel free to wave £50 notes in our faces and offers of two-week holidays in Barbados with lovely 20-year-old nymphets (that holds for all four of us).

Look, in Edinburgh, the most important thing of all is self-publicity. Thus Malcolm Hardee Week at the Fringe.

To quote Max Bialystock in Mel Brooks’ movie The Producers:

“When you’ve got it, flaunt it, flaunt it!”

Here endeth the lesson and – only temporarily – the self-publicity.

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British comedians seem to be turning to electronic book publishing – maybe

I have blogged before about the galloping-blindly-towards-an-unknown-destination changes in book publishing.

In 2003, the late Malcolm Hardee and I put together Sit-Down Comedy for Random House. It was an anthology of original writing (some of it very dark) by comedians Ed Byrne, John Dowie, Jenny Eclair, Stephen Frost, Boothby Graffoe, Ricky Grover, Malcolm Hardee, Hattie Hayridge, John Hegley, Dominic Holland, Jeff Innocent, Stewart Lee, Simon Munnery, Owen O’Neill, Arthur Smith, Linda Smith, Jim Tavare, Dave Thompson and Tim Vine.

Sit-Down Comedy has just been issued in both iBook (for iPads) and Kindle downloadable electronic editions.

Apparently, in the US market, electronic books now account for 20% of total book sales. In the UK, it is still only 5%, but it is expected to double in the next year.

In the last week, two of the contributors to Sit-Down Comedy have mentioned to me that they are thinking of publishing electronic books, probably via lulu.com, the same print-on-demand (not to be confused with self-publishing) company which comedy writer Mark Kelly has used to publish his books Pleased as Punch, This Is Why We Are Going to Die and (free to download) Every Get The Feeling You’ve Been Cheated? Comic Shelley Cooper told me she is also looking into print-on-demand publishing.

A highly relevant factor is that print-on-demand publishers may take 20% of your book’s earnings to arrange print and electronic versions… while conventional print publishers doing the same thing normally give the author royalties of only 7.5% of paperback sales. With print-on-demand  you have to market the book yourself, but you also have to factor in that significant difference between getting 80% or getting the conventional 7.5%.

I have blogged before that am thinking of re-publishing Malcolm Hardee’s autobiography I Stole Freddie Mercury’s Birthday Cake (probably revised back to its original version) as an e-book… but that is only if I can actually pull my finger out – always a major factor in the production of any book.

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