Tag Archives: Tim Vine

Edinburgh Fringe 3 – a rail accident, Malcolm Hardee, #JusticeForObonjo

Some insights into the lives of three comedy performers at the Edinburgh Fringe…


(1) GERRY CARROLL is performing at the City Cafe, part of the Laughing Horse Free Festival. He describes his show Crock or Gold as “the story of the first 66 years of my life told in jokes, clown numbers and songs.” He came up to Edinburgh from London on the Caledonian Sleeper. He tells me:


Gerry Carroll – famous for rolling not laughing stock

When the train arrived in Edinburgh, it passed quite fast through Haymarket station and Waverley station and then stopped in a tunnel. We waited for an hour, as train staff walked through the carriages saying that the train had lost power. 

Eventually, the train moved back to the platform and I got off.

I had Tweeted that I was on the Sleeper and a journalist from the BBC contacted me. 

The incident had potentially been much more serious. The train’s brakes had failed and it had to be stopped by an emergency brake. The journalist arranged to interview me on camera outside my venue, the City Cafe, and I told the story as I’ve written it here. Basically…

“What happened?” 

“Well, nothing much.” 

The piece was shown on the BBC Scottish News that night. 

Since then, I have been recognised twice in the street, once by a woman who asked to have a photo with me.

I am more famous for having been on a runaway train than for my show.


(2) BECKY FURY is performing her show One Hour to Save the World (in 55 Minutes) Upstairs at the Waverley Bar, as part of PBH’s Free Fringe. Her Diary (first part posted here 3 days ago) continues…


Becky Fury: she goes for the cute, autistic type

SATURDAY

My first show goes well. I tell an audience member he’s cute in that autistic way I like and add the caveat that he looks like he’s that far down the spectrum he might not be able to give consent. Legally. Or might need to get a signed letter from his carer giving permission if he wants to come home with me. 

After the show, I’m informed he’s someone important. Luckily he’s not so autistic or important that he doesn’t have the capacity to appreciate humour. I am also told afterwards that the Malcolm Hardee Awards are still running and the man I flirted with/insulted/diagnosed is involved.

I tell him, “They’re not,” and somehow agree to have Malcolm Hardee’s face tattooed on my arm if they are.

It seems I am being pranked by the Godfather of alternative comedy from beyond the grave as the next day I am anonymously messaged with a list of tattooists in Edinburgh.

SUNDAY

My hippy friend comes over for breakfast. He has brought me an offering of a chorizo sausage he found “dumpster diving”. I look at it, tell him I don’t eat meat and I especially don’t eat mouldy meat from the bin and I throw it away. 

He redeems himself after Chorizogate by unlocking some features on Photoshop so I can design a new flyer. 

I get engrossed in the design process and forget to flyer.

I end up performing to a small but lovely audience. Two of the girls are university students. They are studying journalism and have come to the show because they want to save the world. I ask them if they know what capitalism is. They say they have no idea.

It is great being able to tell an audience: “If you haven’t laughed, at least you’ve learnt… You need to get an analysis of capitalism.” 

Life goals achieved. 

Lovely kids but are they meant to be our future? Seriously? 

We are so fucked.

Fate is taking a big post-coital toke of her vape and lying back in a euphoric haze of fruit-flavoured carcinogens as I type.

I meet the Spirit of the Fringe again when I return to the flat where I’m staying.

He is sitting outside. 

He tells me he is called George and shakes my hand.


(3) Man of the moment Benjamin Bankole Bello aka President Obonjo, is performing his show Goodbye Mr President at the Voodoo Rooms on PBH’s Free Fringe. He writes:


Richard Blackwood, actor and playwright, meets Obonjo

Yesterday, was the best day ever so far at the Fringe and these are the reasons why:

A 4 star review for Goodbye Mr President. 

– Met Tim Vine, Tony Slattery, Stephen K Amos, Omid Djalili and so many top stakeholders in the comedy industry. Tim Vine knows about #JusticeForObonjo. So unreal chatting with Omid and Tim about the case. 

– A prominent comedy club in Edinburgh, that we have been trying to get into for years, finally offers spots whilst the President is in Edinburgh.

– Met Tommy Sheppard, SNP MP. Someone introduced me to him, saying: “I am happy to introduce two of my favourite politicians”. Tommy burst out laughing.

– Confirmation that #JusticeForObonjo is having a positive impact on sales for the Triple AAA compilation shows.

– Audience members shouting out “Justice for Obonjo!” at the end of show last night 

– Finally, finally, top agents in the country are interested.

#JusticeForObonjo !

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

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

I posted Part 1 of this chat yesterday.

Here is Part 2…


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

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

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

LOUISETTE: You mean realistic.

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

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

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

LOUISETTE: They are not all mad.

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

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

LOUISETTE: But, getting back to character acts…

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

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

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

I may be like a Miss World contestant. 

LOUISETTE: I don’t think so.

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

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

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

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

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

LOUISETTE: But what are you looking for?

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

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

LOUISETTE: Infinitely different.

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

LOUISETTE: How does that come into it?

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

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

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

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

JOHN: Maybe physical comedy and prop comedy is different. 

LOUISETTE: Is he prop comedy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

LOUISETTE: Like Phil EllisFunz & Gamez.

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

LOUISETTE: Which you seem to like…

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

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

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

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

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

… CONTINUED HERE

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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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