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“The gendered experience of sexist humour”- New research shows how audiences react to comic Lewis Schaffer

Lewis Schaffer: creating a cult

Lewis Schaffer – a sign of the Thames

London-based American comic Lewis Schaffer puts himself about a bit… Well, he puts himself about a LOT in London. The Independent newspaper recently called him a “London institution”.

Week in/week out, he has been performing five days every week for quite a while now.

Every Monday for the last five years, he has hosted his half hour Resonance FM show Nunhead American Radio with Lewis Schaffer.

Every Tuesday and Wednesday for almost five years, he has been performing his hour-long (or longer) Lewis Schaffer is Free Until Famous show (currently at the Rancho Grill in Mayfair).

Every Thursday, he turns up to perform a spot at the Monkey Business comedy club in Kentish Town.

And, every Sunday for almost two years, he has performed his hour-long Lewis Schaffer: American in London show at the Leicester Square Theatre.

Now he seems to be cornering the market in being analysed by university students.

Liam Lonergan meets a man with answers

Liam Lonergan got First in Schaffer Studies

In February, my blog carried extracts from academic Liam Lonergan’s interview with Lewis Schaffer for his (Liam’s) BA (Hons) course in Creative and Media Writing at the University of Portsmouth

In April, Liam got a 1st for his thesis. I posted part of it.

Then, last Friday, Rose Ives got a 1st in her Sociology BA course at Goldsmiths College. She has been following Lewis around and observing audiences at his gigs for perhaps two years. Below, with her permission, is an extract from her academic piece which examines how audiences react to Lewis Schaffer’s performances.


Rose and Lewis Schaffer in Edinburgh yesterday afternoon

Rose reacts to Lewis Schaffer at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2013

From the three pieces of ethnographic data I collected in the field, comparing and contrasting and thematically analysing the three methods of data collection, four key themes emerged.

AWARENESS

When watching the reactions to the six jokes selected, the women in the audience looked around at whoever they were with (this occurred in couples and non-couples) before they performed any of the gestures I had codes for on the Joke Sheet. This did not happen with the male members of the audience who mostly maintained eye contact throughout and laughed openly without looking around.

If the men did look around at other audience members it was whilst laughing or to signal an inside joke. The women looked around at other audience members with caution as though they were seeking approval. When asked about this in the ethnographic interviews, many were surprised that they had done such a thing. They did not deny that they had done it (not in the way they denied the gestures described in Denial of negative reactions) but they offered no explanation for their own actions, although some offered an almost psychological explanation for it, dissociating themselves from the action in the process.

One woman in her late twenties answered me when I asked her about why she looked around before not laughing at a joke about having sex with a transsexual: “I thought it was fucking hilarious but I’m not about to go making a fool of myself and have everyone think I’m some woman who loves dirty cock jokes.”

SEPARATING JOKE FROM COMEDIAN

Lewis Schaffer performing in London last night

Lewis Schaffer performing for no reason without his shirt on

The data from which this theme emerged were the ethnographic interviews I conducted after the show and during the intervals.

The men I spoke to, and this was across all ages and regardless of whether I interviewed them in a couple or as single, spoke about the joke and comedian as a “He” – the joke was “his joke”, their opinion on the show was “he is funny”, “he is crazy” – whilst the women at the show, again this was across all ages but particularly prevalent amongst women under 30 years old, spoke about the jokes, the material and the comedy as a whole as an “it.”

One woman who was in her early twenties and with a group of female friends of a similar age said: “It was certainly interesting. I’ve not seen much stand-up like this, it was funny. He’s sweet. (Referring to the comedian)” and this is a good representation of the shorter conversations I had as some people were eager to leave the venue after the show ended.

The men in the audience talked about the comedian as though he were a friend and therefore spoke about the jokes with forgiveness, as though it were friendly banter in the form of “Informal comedy”(Mulkay, 1988) whereas the women in interviews, many of which were couples with the men, were reluctant to engage personally with the comedian as if to do so would be condoning the sexist jokes.

Most women avoided critical engagement with the jokes when directly asked and used measured terms such as “perhaps you’re right” and “maybe it was because…” whilst the men interpreted my questions as an invitation to critique or praise the comedian in absolute terms – “He’s a pro (professional)”, “He’s a good guy” – which highlights a great contrast in the gendered experience of sexist humour.

DENIAL OF NEGATIVE REACTIONS

Lewis Schaffer on stage in London this week

Lewis Schaffer performing for no reason with his jacket on

If the Approval section was the first step in the process of reacting negatively to a joke, the second stage was the gestures that I had coded on the Joke Sheet.

When reacting to jokes concerning the comedian personally – self-deprecating jokes about the comedian’s age or appearance – the women in the audience covered their mouths whilst laughing (this is one of the symbols on the Joke Sheet) as though they didn’t want to be seen laughing at the comedian. This gesture doubled as embarrassment, especially when coupled with looking away from the stage (also a symbol on the Joke Sheet).

The most interesting aspect of the reaction patterns that came from the Joke Sheets were the explanations that followed in the ethnographic interviews.

When I repeated the jokes I saw them react negatively towards, they denied that they had reacted in such a way, brushing off any words such as “sexist”, “offensive” or “taboo” with laughter and changed the words to “dirty” or “naughty” to articulate their thoughts. This showed how they were both embarrassed and ashamed of the sexist material as well as being embarrassed and ashamed of their reaction to it. This also approves the results of the humour and context work by Gray and Ford (2012).

THE PERSONAL TOUCH

Lewis Schaffer, shoeless man

Comedian Lewis Schaffer, not performing, with his shoes off

Although the focus throughout this research has been the consumption not the production of the comedy, it would do the data an injustice not to discuss the patterns of techniques the comedian uses and their effect on how the women in the audience perform their gender roles.

As a known friend of the comedian, the main obstacle of the interview process was attempting to get the participants to stop asking me questions about Lewis Schaffer. Both men and women (although the majority were women) asked me if many of the jokes he had made about himself were true – if he really was living in a council flat, if he really was a divorcee etc.

“The ironist insincerely states something he does not mean, but through the manner of his statement, rather through its formulation or it’s delivery, or both, he is able to encode and counter proposition its real meaning, which may be interpreted by the attentive listener.” (Nash 1985:52) or, as the comedian Lewis Schaffer explained it, “All jokes are opinion with deniability. If people actually thought I had sex with a horse they wouldn’t be too happy about it. As it happens, I’m not allowed within 50ft of a stable or Camilla Parker-Bowles.”

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Comedian Ivor Dembina on how money & TV altered British alternative comedy

Liam Lonergan meets a man with answers

Liam Lonergan talked academically to Ivor

In some blogs this year, I have posted extracts from chats Liam Lonergan had with me and with comedian Lewis Schaffer for his BA (Hons) course in Creative and Media Writing at the University of Portsmouth.

Yesterday, Liam sent me a transcript of a chat he had with comedian and club-owner Ivor Dembina, whose weekly Hampstead Comedy Club celebrates its 20th anniversary next month. Here, with Liam’s permission, is an extract in which Ivor talks about the early days of British alternative comedy and the changes since.

____________________________________________________

Liam Lonergan: I don’t know if you know much about the contemporary student scene.

Ivor Dembina

Ivor Dembina used to cultivate students

Ivor Dembina: Well, no… I used to. When I first came into comedy, I helped, if you like, to cultivate the student audience. I used to take little packages of comedy around the universities and colleges. That would have been late 1980s. But I wasn’t the only person doing it because students were seen as a fertile source of income – the universities had money and they didn’t have direct contact with comedians, so they’d pay someone – an agency – to put together and package a show and I did it more or less all over the country. I did that for several years. The attraction was they would pay you a guarantee. It was quite an attractive market and the big agencies – or what have become the big agencies, notably Avalon and Off The Kerb – they kind of built their foundations on those types of tours. And then what they’d do is they might sign someone up – y’know, Performer X – and say to the student unions: “Well, if you want Performer X you’ve got to have our other performers too”. It’s quite a cynical way of doing it but…

Liam: But it’s a big part of the business.

Ivor: Well, that’s the way they operated. Whereas I did it much more on a one-off basis. But I kinda lost interest in it because what happened was gradually… Well, in those days, students were still regarded as a good audience. They were interested in the world and they had what could be regarded as an alternative outlook which complemented the attitudes of the performers. In more recent years…

Liam: Well, anyone gets into university now and there’s a more… I dunno what you’d call it…

Ivor: It’s a much more corporate place, much more money-based. They’re becoming… the universities now are basically much more right wing and comedy has just become the Wednesday night entertainment after the football and the rugby and a lot of drunkenness. A lot of bad behaviour from the students. Part of the attraction used to be performing to kids who might be interested in the state of the world.

Liam: Going back to what you said about Off The Kerb and Avalon, do you think the current production agency monopolisation and the Big Four at the Edinburgh Fringe… Do you think they are taking over fringe comedy?

Ivor Dembina back in the day

Ivor Dembina – even younger than today

Ivor: Well, they have. it’s like any market. Once a market for a product develops – it doesn’t matter what it is; it could be selling coffee beans or ashtrays – then someone will come in and do it professionally and aggressively and it just happens to be Off The Kerb and Avalon.

Basically, students are lazy. Avalon and Off The Kerb spotted this. They would say: “You don’t have to worry about getting in touch with comedians. We’ll build a circuit. We’ve got these famous people and a fancy brochure. Just give us a date and we’ll send along a package. Just make sure you’ve got a cheque at the end of the night”. And the student union person thought: “Blimey. This is alright. I only have to put a poster up in the end of the bar”… Most of them just didn’t want to do any work.

The other reason it expanded was most of these student union officers were dealing with bands and bands are a nightmare. Are they gonna’ turn up? Are they gonna want a sound check all day? They want a big rider and cocaine and birds and all that. All this kind of thing. They’re just a fucking nightmare. Comedians are very easy to deal with.

Liam: So there’s not really much ego with comedians?

Ivor: Well there is but, from the point of view of the university, comedians are dead easy to deal with. All you’ve gotta do is put a microphone up, the comedian turns up… They’re an absolute godsend. They’re mostly all young, fit, fairly sober individuals and they’re just so easy to organise. Whereas, with these bands, there will always be some people who didn’t like this band or they want R’n’B and they don’t want Soul. You’ve got about five people in the band and one of them is going to be outta his nut. Comedy was and is just so much easier to put on. And relatively cheap. Much cheaper than to put on a well-known band.

Liam: Do you think comedy holds some sort of cachet now? It doesn’t seem to be low status anymore.

Ivor: I’m not sure it was ever low status. There just wasn’t as much of it then as there is now. I don’t think people look down on it. I think theatre people look down on stand-up comedy but I don’t think anyone else does. How old are you?

Liam: I’m 24.

Ivor: With people of your age, it’s now a much more widely-perceived route to showbusiness success. When I was your age, if you wanted to get famous through showbusiness, basically, you were talking about getting hold of a guitar… that was it. Or becoming an actor and then gradually… Now, people think: “Oh, if I become a comedian I can get on telly and then I can get cast in either a sitcom or maybe even a play and then…” I mean, Jack Whitehall is a classic entertainment role model. He was a pretty average stand-up, but he looked good on TV. The girls like him. He’s quite funny. He’s everywhere.

Liam: Yeah, he’s ubiquitous.

Ivor: Even more so Russell Brand. Whereas, when I came into comedy it was a bit underground. Well, underground’s not the right word. It was alternative. Now it’s part of the mainstream entertainment landscape. People visit London. They go to Madame Tussauds. They go to Camden Lock. And then they go to a night at The Comedy Store. It’s part of…

Liam: You said it’s not underground anymore… Is there a sort of notable underground scene? Is there a sort of group, a collection of comics that you can see now who…

Ivor: No.

Liam: Not at all?

Ivor: No. I think the new comics are shit. Underground? They should be underground. They should be under the fucking ground. What you are getting with the new comics is a derivation of what they see – and a pretty pallid imitation of what they see – on TV. Because it’s all now television led. You’ve got these kind of mutations of Mock The Week and Have I Got News For You – people thinking that comedy has become about showing off.

Liam: Or the other side of it. They’re doing Stewart Lee. I’ve seen quite a lot of people trying to do Stewart Lee as well. They’re trying to be underground.

Being himself at Hampstead Comedy Club

Ivor himself at Hampstead Comedy Club

Ivor: To me, comedy is about being yourself. And that’s what it is. The kids who come into it now… At university, they received an email or got a flyer saying: “We’ve got Joe X coming next week whom you may probably have seen on Mock The Week.”

They’re getting this all the time. So they assume that exposure on television is some kind of verification of status. Sometimes it is. I’m not saying everybody on television is crap. That’s not the case. But they begin to associate being in TV with being good.

So they think: “What do I have to do to be good? I’ll do something that is akin to what the people on TV are doing”. So they come up with their own variation of what is already out there and, of course, it’s shit.

If you go round the bottom rungs of the live circuit (in London, anyway. I can’t really speak for out-of-town) there’s very little that’s exciting or innovative. You’ll get gimmicks. You’ll get things like comedy and wrestling. Or comedy competitions. Or get-up-and-tell-your-best-joke. Everyone does two minutes. One comedian is gonna do another comedians’ material. The Gong Shows. Layering on excitement where no excitement really exists. We’re going to have a Bald Night. Or a Ginger Night. Or a Woman Who’s Got Three Bollocks night. Y’know, anything just to give it a spin. But there’s nothing inherently useful or, dare I say, artistic. It’s commercial gimmickry.

… CONTINUED HERE

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A man tries to sleep through comedian Lewis Schaffer’s show: violence ensues

The last King of Poland: not a plumber

The last King of Poland was not a plumber

Yesterday afternoon, with my eternally-un-named friend, I went to Brunel University in West London for the launch of their new Centre For Comedy Studies Research which aims to “promote and facilitate academic research on the comedy/society interface”.

In some ways, it is good for academics to treat comedy seriously though – as is often the case – this can sometimes lapse into intelligent people creating abstract academic ‘things’ to study to get an income and to spend their time on. The phrase ‘looking up your own arse’ is ready-made for these situations and deserves more detailed research.

When I sit through a discussion of ‘Polish jokes’ and encounter the sentences “The Polish trickster is a master of the paradoxes of porosity” and “It moves from a phobic to a philic register” I sometimes think a psychopath climbing up a university bell tower with a high-powered rifle and picking-off people at random is not necessarily performing a negative function in society.

On the other hand, the delightfully dour Rose – one of comedian Lewis Schaffer’s entourage – is currently writing her third academic thesis on Lewis Schaffer and there could be entire university departments profitably studying the psychological and sociological intricacies of Lewis Schaffer’s neuroses.

Hellfire! There must be multiple theses to be written on why he keeps repeating his full name “Lewis Schaffer” and why he attracts off-the-proverbial-wall incidents at his shows. Last night was no exception – and a good antidote to academia. It was one of his ongoing twice-a-week Free Until Famous shows which go hand-in-pocket with his ongoing weekly pay-to-enter American in London shows.

Lewis Schaffer performing in Soho last night

Lewis Schaffer performing at The Source Below last night (Photograph by my eternally-un-named friend)

I arrived slightly late which, a whole two minutes after I was seated, managed to distract him from the flow of his performance. He was on form, though. Good show, good audience reaction.

Later, amidst the glamour of Leicester Square’s flagship McDonalds, Lewis told me:

“I’ve lost track whether my shows are good or not. My shows are like a rollercoaster. Most rollercoasters start with a slow incline up. Mine start with a drop into a pit. All I care about is making them interesting for me. I can’t start a show with people enjoying themselves because I’ve just got a feeling it’s going to get worse. I feel I have to start off with them hating me and build it up. I guess I want to be loved – I want to be loved by people who don’t love me.

“If they come into my show with high expectations of enjoyment, I just want to quash that. The key to my shows is that the audience, at some point, has to believe I’m a professional comedian and I can only be self-deprecating for a short period of the show. But I didn’t feel I was that brilliant tonight.”

“And then there was the drunk,” I said.

At the end of the first part of his nearly two-hour long show, Lewis Schaffer told the audience he was going to hide behind a curtain during the interval so that, if anyone wanted to leave without embarrassment, they could.

“Why were you hiding behind the curtain?” I asked.

“For scientific purposes,” Lewis Schaffer told me.

Lewis Schaffer contemplates in McDonald’s last night

Lewis Schaffer plays with a bottle last night

While Lewis Schaffer was hiding behind the curtain, a drunk came down into the basement venue and sat in a corner. At the time, I was upstairs buying a coffee for my eternally-un-named friend.

“He was young middle-aged,” she told me later, describing the man who came in. “He shuffled in wearing a dark jacket. He sat down at a table where two people had been sitting, but they’d gone to the bar to get a drink. He sat hunched over, holding a carrier bag to his chest in the way of the psychologically wounded or drunk, like someone who is cold. I thought Oh, is he a drunk who often comes in and tries to sleep in the corner during Lewis’ shows?

“If he’d come in without being so obviously drunk or damaged and then just leant against a corner in the dark, he would probably have been left alone because it wouldn’t have felt like he was so obviously the elephant in the room but, because he was slumped forward in a sleepy, drunken way… Rose realised there was this guy who was going to alter the atmosphere of the room, so she went to warn Lewis behind the curtain that there was a possible situation.”

“He was a proper, full-on, drunk, homeless guy,” Lewis told me. “He came in and passed out at the back of the room. He was very huge and very dangerous and we had to start the second half of the show and I felt I didn’t have the time to escort him out myself, so I asked the bartender to escort him out.”

“The barman was young,” explained my eternally-un-named friend, “and Italian, so English was not his first language. I think he was telling the guy You’re only allowed in here if you buy a drink and you’re too drunk to have one, so you’ll have to leave and the drunk guy was disputing this.”

I came back into to room when the barman had got the drunk man on his feet and they were both shuffling towards the bottom of the stairs.

Things apparently got physical up in the street and the drunk guy allegedly punched the bartender, the bartender allegedly punched the drunk guy and the drunk guy allegedly threw something at the kebab shop above the venue, cracking the window.

Broken dreams, broken window in London's Soho last night

Broken dreams, broken window in London’s Soho last night

“It caused maybe £1,500 of damage” Lewis Schaffer told me,

“And your point is?” I asked.

“My point is that I feel horrible because I’ve had 20 years in the bar business – that’s what my job is compering and hosting comedy shows – and I know how to get people out of a place without getting them angry. I should have done it myself… Is there something funny in that for your blog?”

“Your shows are never less than entertaining,” I told Lewis Schaffer. “Some people see the bottle as half empty; some people see the bottle as half full. You always see an empty bottle.”

“So it goes,” he said.

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At the Edinburgh Fringe, Lewis Schaffer turns down a review by Kate Copstick; Bob Slayer strips another reviewer

Noel Faulkner trying to give away £20 notes

Noel Faulkner trying to give away £20 notes

London Comedy Cafe Theatre owner Noel Faulkner has been staying in my Edinburgh flat the last couple of days, on a quick trip up to the Edinburgh Fringe.

Yesterday, he tried standing in the street, offering £20 notes to people if they would see a particular show – just to find out if they would. No-one would.

“People weren’t interested,” he told me, “unless there were Dancing on Ice stars in the show. The Edinburgh Fringe is dead. Mediocrity reigns.”

The Fringe – perhaps as always – is certainly in a state of flux.

And – perhaps as always – it is to do with money.

Yesterday, this blog published comedian Bob Slayer’s piece about ticket prices at the Edinburgh Fringe which The Scotsman newspaper commissioned but refused to print.

The Big Four venues at the Fringe are often criticised (including in this blog) for making money out of performers and being responsible for inflated ticket prices.

But someone yesterday (not connected to the Big Four venues) pointed out to me that the Big Four venues are as much held to ransom financially as the performers. One un-publicised villain of the piece, it was put to me, is Edinburgh University.

The Edinburgh Fringe

There’s a lot of it at the Edinburgh Fringe – but who gets it?

I was told by someone with alleged access to the figures (which I cannot confirm) that over 75% of the tickets sold at all venues (excluding the Free Fringe and Free Festival) are sold in venues rented out by Edinburgh University at high rates. These “exhorbitant” (the word used to me) fixed overheads mean that ticket prices have to be higher than they would otherwise be. Not only that but, normally, the takings from bars on property ultimately owned by Edinburgh University go not to the Fringe venues but to Edinburgh University and its Students’ Association. An exception would be the Udderbelly in public Bristo Square.

So all that visible money-making ‘exploitation’ of Fringe punters’ pockets is coming not from the venue owners but the ultimate landlord of the properties which the venues rent.

If you are a performer at the Edinburgh Fringe, all you want is lots of bums on seats and a good review from Kate Copstick in The Scotsman.

Unless you are Lewis Schaffer.

Yesterday, Copstick told me she had gone to see Matt Price’s much-talked-about unbilled show at The Hive: Matt Price Is Not In The Program: Turkeygate, Tinky Winky & The Mafia.

“I loved it,” she told me last night. “Matt is wonderful, warm, but very, very needy and that just gives me an overwhelming urge to smack him in the face. But he’s wonderful with the audience and the show was tremendous.

“I came out of Matt’s show with a glow and a terrible bout of acid stomach, so I was heading up Niddry Street to get some emergency Gavescon, when I bumped into Lewis Schaffer – He was the next show at The Hive and I was there to review him. Matt’s show finishes as 7.30 and Lewis starts at 8.00.

Lewis Schaffer needs no reviews

Lewis Schaffer: a man with no shoes

“So Lewis Schaffer says: Oh! Kate Copstick! Kate Copstick!

“No tongues?” I asked.

“Thank goodness. No tongues,” said Copstick. “But I told him: I’m coming to review your show.

No, you’re not! he told me. Well I am, I said.

No, no, you shouldn’t come, he said. You know what it’s gonna be like.

“I said: Well, I like to think I’m open-minded as a critic and I don’t assume that I know what anybody’s show is going to be like. 

No! You know what it’ll be like, said Lewis. OK, you could give me 3 stars, you could give me 2 stars, but you’ll probably give me 4 stars.

“I said: Well, it’s rather unseemly for you, as a performer, to assume you are confident enough in my work as a critic to know what the star count will be. 

Well, you know, you shouldn’t come, he said.

I’ll be there, I told him. But, as I walked up and back – and it may have been the shock of having to pay £5 for a tiny bottle of Gavescon – I thought Fuck this! I absolutely adore Lewis, love his work. I gave him great reviews when no-one else even knew he was there.

“But I mean, you never know when he is being tongue-in-cheek. Well, you do. His tongue is massive, but his cheek is bigger. And I thought Fuck this! I’ll go and see someone else. And I did.”

Copstick is the one reviewer everyone (apart from, it seems, Lewis Schaffer) wants to come and see their shows.

But one massive pet hate of most performers is the use by some (not all) of the seemingly expanding number of Edinburgh Fringe publications of young, amateur reviewers.

bobslayer_bawbags_10aug2013

Bob Slayer – unusually over-dressed last night

Last week, I was at one of Bob Slayer’s Midnight Mayhem shows at Bob’s Bookshop. Among the crowd in the main room was a reviewer for one of the Fringe publications. He looked very young and inexperienced.

“I spotted him all fresh-faced with his press pass around his neck,” Bob Slayer told me yesterday, “and I told him: You can only be reviewing for one of two publications.

“So that’s why I took his press pass off him,” Bob told me. “After you left, the gig turned down to about a dozen people. Adam Larter took acts and they went and had a party in the back room while I told stories to punters in the front room.

“I asked the young guy how many shows he’d seen and he started talking about the ones he’d reviewed and I said No, no, no. Before you reviewed a show, how many shows had you seen? and he said None… And that’s a reviewer for one of the Fringe papers!

“But I got to like this guy, cos he was honest. And he said: Well, we’re perfectly entitled to review… and actually maybe a review from an ordinary person is better than a review from a bitter and jaded old hack. Except Copstick. She’s fine. An opinion is an opinion.”

“Well,” I said, “I suppose ignorant reviewers are the ‘real’ audience. People who know who Freddie ‘Parrot Face’ Davies or Arthur Askey was are not the comedy-going audience who read reviews to find out which shows they may like.”

“We made the gig all about teaching him about comedy,” Bob said. “He didn’t even know who Morecambe and Wise were, let alone Malcolm Hardee. He’s like an ‘open mic’ reviewer. He told me they don’t get paid anything. They offer them some training and a reference and that’s it.

“The long and short of it is, the little lad came in at midnight to review the show and left at 5:30am in only his underpants carrying his clothes and shoes. He had also stamped all over his hairless chest with my Bob Slayer ink stamp. As he stumbled into the street he asked where his press pass was. I told him that he would have to come back for it the next day – and settle his bar tab. The little lamb came in very hung-over the next day. I think he will become the greatest reviewer at the Edinburgh Fringe, because I have trained him up to send him out into the world to go out and review properly. He has had a Fringe experience.”

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Is the comedy business more important to the UK than the financial industry?

(A version of this piece was also published on the Indian news site WSN)

Dr Brett Mills, ‘Principal Investigator'

Dr Brett Mills, ‘Principal Investigator’ of comedy

Yesterday, the Daily Telegraph reported that the UK’s creative industries generate £36 billion per year for the economy and employ 1.5 million people. The Chancellor, George Osborne, called them “massively important”. So why does no-one take comedy seriously?

The English Arts Council will not give grants to comedians staging shows at the Edinburgh Fringe, because they do not consider comedy to be an art.

But, last year, the University of East Anglia (UEA) got a £300,000 grant for a three-year study into “the nature of creativity within the British television comedy industry by exploring the working practices of industry professionals, and the industrial, institutional and policy contexts that shape and inform what they do.”

The study is called Make Me Laugh. It started in January 2012 and ends in December 2014. The ‘Principal Investigator’ is Dr Brett Mills. He is Head of the UEA’s School of Film, Television and Media Studies and I chatted to him a couple of days ago.

“We’re working with loads of writers, producers and commissioners,” he told me, “following comedy projects from initial idea through to broadcast or, as is often the case, non-broadcast and abandonment and resignation and unhappiness. We’re trying to look at what makes creativity – however you define that – happen and what are the things that get in its way.”

“You’ve done previous studies of comedy,” I said. “Isn’t this just a way to get another £300,000?”

“The first project was about £4,000,” laughed Brett. “and I just interviewed people, but interviewing individuals doesn’t give you a sense of relationships and networks, the development of a project and how things change over time. One other problem was that, when I asked people how decisions were made, the answer I tended to get was Gut instinct and, to a researcher, that’s utterly useless. The aim of this project is to try to unpick that.”

Not for television research

Not for UK television research purposes

“Have you read Adventures in the Screen Trade by William Goldman?” I asked.

“Very deliberately no,” said Brett.

“Why?”

“Because,” explained Brett, “it’s one of those books everyone says you have to read – and because there is a split in academic terms between Film Studies and Television Studies. The set of approaches you would use in Film Studies would use that book. The set of approaches you would use in Television Studies would be totally different in academic terms.”

“Mmmm,” I said, “You know the often misunderstood quote about Nobody knows anything...?”

“Yeah,” said Brett wearily.

“…which” I continued, “basically means that creativity is an art not a science. Aren’t you trying to make it a science?”

“A gut instinct, in a way,” said Brett, “is just an internalised set of things you have learned. In most industries, you develop a gut instinct.”

“So is creating and commissioning TV shows a science or an art?” I asked.

“Well, it’s a bit of both,” Brett replied. “And, if we get into the area of whether something is ‘good’ or not, are we talking about critically acclaimed or watched by a lot of people or loved by a lot of people? Or about having a legacy and being watched 10 or 15 years later? It depends what you’re measuring.”

“Anyone who makes something VERY popular,” I suggested, “is immediately attacked as being ‘trite’ and ‘low-brow’ and ‘bland’.”

“Well” said Brett, “I don’t think anyone we’ve spoken to is embarrassed about making something popular.”

“Can your research,” I asked, “explain why Mrs Brown’s Boys is loved by audiences but hated by a lot of so-called cognoscenti in the media and the comedy industry?”

“No,” said Brett, “because that’s a different project I’d love to do, which is talking to audiences. This current project is about the process by which things come into existence. Miranda would be fascinating because there is a gender division: women love it.”

“Women of all ages?” I asked.

“Yes,” said Brett, “and, this is purely anecdotal, but it’s a kind of family thing where the women sit down to watch it and the dad leaves the room because he can’t stand it.”

“Is there statistical evidence that more women like it than men?” I asked.

“It’s probably very likely,” said Brett, “because – although these are statistics from seven or eight years ago – the vast majority of mainstream sitcoms on television are always watched by more women than men. Men Behaving Badly was watched by more women than men.”

“Doesn’t studying comedy academically make watching comedy less interesting?” I asked.

“No” said Brett, “people who read recipes like food; it doesn’t mean they start hating food. In fact, in some ways, you start appreciating it more. Even the stuff that doesn’t make me laugh I can still find fascinating.

The bare image promoting the Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards

A totally irrelevant image of Malcolm Hardee

“I grew up in the 1980s with The Young Ones on TV and the Alternative Comedy people doing their stuff and Malcolm Hardee doing his stuff.

“I’m very anti this idea that the aim of academic research is about cultural hierarchies and we should only look at the best: that we should construct a ‘canon of good work’.

“That’s one of the interesting things about the department I’m in at the moment: most people are interested in the popular, the mainstream. We don’t see our job as deciding what is good culture and what is crap culture.”

“I suspect,” I said, “that the audiences who originally went to see Shakespeare’s plays went to see them as Brian Rix farces or blood-soaked splatter tragedies.”

“Exactly,” said Brett. “Most of the creators of stuff that’s held up as ‘art’ now – Shakespeare, Dickens – were unbelievably popular in their own day. It was mainstream culture. Dickens wrote serial fiction. It’s not as if he had an artistic vision. He was thinking: Oh, that character’s popular, I’ll write more of him in the next episode.

“The idea that you retrospectively construct these people as artistic visionaries and so on…  No… Shakespeare was writing for an audience. He was a populist.

“Exploring popular culture is an interesting battle, because our field – Media Studies – often gets criticised as a Mickey Mouse subject, not ‘proper’. And, by looking at popular culture, you actually feed into that prejudice… I have a colleague who does research on reality television and people do just go Oh! That’s a stupid subject! But No. We’re having to have that fight and we will man the barricades.

“This current Make Me Laugh project very definitely connects to that.

“Lots of film directors and novelists whose work is seen by far fewer people are interviewed and profiled and their views are kept for posterity. And yet you have people creating popular mainstream culture consumed by millions and millions of people and they’re going to disappear into history. Nobody’s interviewing them. Nobody’s exploring their working practices whereas any old Croatian art house film director has probably been interviewed by Sight & Sound twenty times and had five books written about him.

“I sometimes ask my students: Give me a list of film directors and they can rattle off a hundred. Then I say: Tell me a television director. And the only ones they can tell me are film directors who’ve done television. They’ll say Oh, Quentin Tarantino directed an episode of CSI didn’t he?

“They’ll know Miranda Hart herself. But the producer of Miranda? The director? No. They don’t even know their names.

“These people are creating a whole range of culture, but nobody’s heard of them. To me, that’s a real outrage. And it’s backed-up by the fact that, when you contact people, wanting to interview them, their first response is: Why would you want to talk to me?

“I tell them: If you were an art house film director, you wouldn’t ask that question. You’re writing a comedy that’s watched by ten million people every week and you’re confused that I find you of interest!” That, in itself, is fascinating to me.

Dr Brett Mills’ favourite sitcom

Brett Mills’ suggestion for “the greatest sitcom ever made”

“One of the ways Britain defines its national identity is via comedy. We see that as really important. How did we define ourselves last year in the Olympic Opening Ceremony? With Mr Bean… and the Queen jumping out of a helicopter. It was comedy, comedy. comedy!

“Comedy is central to our idea of national identity and the economic value of the comedy industry is massive. Just take Mr Bean and the amount of money that’s produced around the world.

“The economic value of the comedy industry – including films, television and stand-up is absolutely massive. Yet the amount of public money that goes into theatre and opera and other cultural forms… compared to the amount that goes into, say, stand-up comedy (even though there is public money via the Licence Fee going into BBC TV) is virtually nil.

“But, then, if you talk to people in small independent production companies and suggest Shouldn’t the government be supporting you more? they tell you No! We wanna stay separate. That’s the whole point. We’re outsiders. We’re mavericks.

“The creative industries in Britain employ more people than the engineering industry and the pharmaceutical industry. The creative industries contribute more to the economy than the financial industries.”

“Really?” I asked.

“Yes,” said Brett firmly. “Television, film, architecture, design, music, computer games. The scale of the creative industries is absolutely massive. And it is still one of the areas where Britain is accepted internationally as a world leader.”

“So why are you not aspiring to be a television producer or commissioner?” I asked.

“Because I don’t have that gut instinct,” replied Brett. “Not at all. Not at all.”

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Comedian Bob Slayer has a big rant at me about the Edinburgh Fringe shows

Bob Slayer is not a man to mess with

Bob Slayer occasionally gets grumpy

Yesterday, comedian Bob Slayer got a bit grumpy about the blog I posted two days ago about the six Edinburgh Fringe shows I am involved in this year – Five of them are happening at Bob’s Bookshop, one of the venues he will be running in August under the banner of his Heroes of Fringe.

His grumpiness had been triggered by reading in my blog that I thought his ‘Pay What You Want’ model within the Free Festival would be confusing to punters.

“There is no real confusion,” he moaned to me, “unless you plant it. It is Free Entry – just turn up – or, to guarantee getting in, buy a ticket in advance. What possible confusion is there there????”

“But,” I tried to argue, “it’s confusing enough already that you’re expected to pay for ‘Free’ shows on the way out. Now you’re just calling ‘Free’ shows ‘Pay What You Want’ shows – calling the same thing by two different names – and adding in an extra layer of confusion by offering advance tickets for sale.”

In 2011 I presented Bob with his Malcolm Hardee Award

I presented Bob with his Malcolm Hardee Award in 2011

You are often wrong, John!” Bob ranted at me yesterday. “You were wrong not to give Chris Dangerfield the Malcolm Hardee Cunning Stunt Award last year. You were wrong not to give John Robertson the award for Comic Originality and you were certainly wrong to nominate me (twice). Don’t be wrong again!

“Not only is ‘Pay What You Want’ a more honest description of Free shows,” he argued, “it is a more honest name for most Paid shows where, at the Fringe, so many shows give away tickets for free due to low sales – or ‘papering’ as it’s called.

“There is a massive gap between Free and Paid shows at the Edinburgh Fringe and we are planning to bridge that gap. Pay What You Want is the best of both Free and Paid. It is a natural evolution.

“As Free shows have become more successful on the Fringe, a better standard of acts are keen to do them, especially with the main venues continuing to adopt their ‘Pay-To-Play’ model.

“It got to the point with many of our Free shows at The Hive venue last year that we were regularly turning people away because they were full. Heroes of Fringe has an even stronger line-up this year which would be the envy of any Paid venue and we will be turning people away from shows again this year. So if you really want to see a show, get a ticket!

“Heroes of Fringe is about promoting and developing the most interesting acts that can sell tickets but who don’t want to lose money in order to do so.

“Last year we promoted both Paid and Free shows. That was partially in response to the growing claims that Free shows are more ethical than Paid shows. While this is true when you compare Free shows with the Pay-To-Play model adopted by most venues, Free shows are not ethically superior in themselves. We wanted to show that it didn’t have to be the case. It is not how you pay for the show, but the model behind the show and how much money the performer sees.

Bob Slayer in Leicester last Friday

The public will pay to see Bob Slayer like this

“What we accidentally discovered was that punters who really wanted to see a particular show were happy to buy tickets in advance so that they could guarantee they could get in – even if that show was advertised as free. What we also found was that, by telling punters that some folks had already paid a fiver, they were prepared to give more to the performer at the end.

“In an ideal world, punters would pay what they wanted in advance as well, but the Fringe Box Office can’t cope with that at the moment. Maybe in the future…”

But Bob’s grumpiness with me was not just caused by me criticising the ‘Pay What You Want’ idea.

He always gets grumpy when I mention the fact that performing at the Fringe is (in the words of a comic whose name I have forgotten) like standing in a cold shower for three weeks, just tearing up £50 notes.

“Don’t accept the bullshit that people don’t make money in Edinburgh!” Bob rants at people… He had another go at me yesterday about this, saying those words.

“The PR people, management, agents and venues make pots of money,” he ranted. “With nearly 2 million tickets sold, the money goes somewhere!”

This, of course, I agree with, though I think the big venues sometimes unfairly get cast as the big villains. They provide a lot of background support and infrastructure but do not own their venues.

It sometimes seems that half or more of Edinburgh is owned by Edinburgh University, who rent out their buildings to the large and medium venue-runners. The venue-runners are, themselves, at the mercy and whim of the charges and overheads levied by Edinburgh University, whose level of charging is never mentioned.

An Edinburgh street during the Fringe

An Edinburgh street just off the Royal Mile during the Fringe

But, whatever the cause, I think most performers see going to the Fringe as going somewhere to lose money.

“Of course,” agrees Bob, “most comedians at the Fringe don’t see any of the cash swilling around… but the smart ones do. All the comedians on my Alternative Fringe (now called Heroes of Fringe) at least broke even last year and most of them made money…

“This is because we offer acts proper deals.

“If, as an act, you put all your efforts into being ‘discovered’, then you are embarking on a ‘shit or bust’ path and – even if someone does come along and gives you your big break – they are the ones who are going to decide the terms and conditions. But, if you strive to be self-sufficient and build your own sustainable audience, then the industry will hear about you and seek you out. Then they will have to offer you what you want or you will simply carry on doing what you are already successfully doing.

Dr Brown was ignored by the industry for three Fringe Festivals, but he was slowly growing an audience so that, when he was picked up and produced by Soho Theatre and Underbelly, they supported what he was doing.

John Robertson (left) and Bob Slayer

John Robertson (left) negotiates with Bob

“Heroes of Fringe has lost a show to Underbelly this year. It was one that had become a word-of-mouth hit at our Hive venue last year – John Robertson’s The Dark Room. The show is amazing. It should have been nominated for a Malcolm Hardee Award last year! Underbelly had to offer John a bloody good deal in order for him to move on. He won’t lose money and – with a bit of luck and the proper support of the Underbelly – he will be a major hit at the Fringe this year.”

So there can be silver linings to the inevitable clouds at Edinburgh. But the clouds are still there.

Performers always have to add in to the Fringe experience the eye-watering cost of accommodation and of some Pay-To-Play venues, plus the factors of some financially rapacious promoters, some management agencies wantonly ripping off their own acts and some occasional… erm… highly dubious behaviour.

Bob with Claire Smith of The Scotsman at the 2012 Fringe

Butch Bob and Claire Smith of The Scotsman at Fringe 2012

In The Scotsman last year, journalist Claire Smith wrote a piece on the financing of the Edinburgh Fringe and the fact that she was threatened, during her research, both by a prominent, very long-established venue owner and by a prominent British comedian.

And, just to clarify…

That was NOT one of the Big Four venue owners…

And nor was it Bob Slayer!

He just gets grumpy occasionally.

Performing at the Edinburgh Fringe can be like juggling jelly on quicksand while dog-sized mosquitoes attack you… in the rain. But, perhaps fortunately, most newcomers are too drunk, drugged or sex-crazed to notice until they get home and recover…

… and then they decide to go back for another year…

Edinburgh is addictive.

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Last night I saw The Wurzels sing and heard of a man chasing whales’ breath

The Wurzels – men out standing in their own field last night

Is there something wrong with me?

I saw The Wurzels perform at a pub in Worcestershire last night.

Yes. The I’ve Got a Brand New Combine Harvester band, still playing around.

I expected maybe a rather half-hearted, past-it band performing in the back room of a pub. Instead, they were playing off the side of a vast pantechnicon lorry in a gigantic field behind the pub and they were slick in the best possible way. The gig had sold out well in advance; the field was full.

It was like watching a perfectly engineered gleaming machine – no mention of combine harvesters – working with razor-sharp precision and playing to a way-over-the-top, party-type audience who, certainly near the front, were raucously singing along and dancing like someone had crossed The Wicker Man with a 1970s nightclub scene from Stringfellow’s without the glam clothes. The audience LOVED the Wurzels and there was not any micro-second when they were not delivering top-notch professional entertainment.

But I would have preferred a rather less professional outfit playing in the back room of a pub.

That’s my problem.

It’s rather like my taste in comedy.

I saw one act at the Edinburgh Fringe a couple of months ago which was like The Wurzels. Very experienced. Totally professional. Honed to absolute second-to-second perfection. Brilliant. The audience loved every second. And the comedian could – and probably did – repeat that act just as brilliantly every time he performed.

But I would have preferred something rougher, less professional, more likely to soar in parts but go off the rails in others.

As I say, that’s my problem.

You can’t beat stripping off and mooning at the audience…

I have seen The Wurzels. They are brilliant. I would happily sit or stand through their show again. But I would not seek them out. I know what I am going to get. A word-perfect, note-perfect, beautifully-structured show guaranteed to entertain without fail and without flagging at any point. There was even the sight of one of the Worzels mooning – judging the audience perfectly.

The show was a gleaming Rolls Royce of professionalism.

The Wicker Man met 1970s Stringfellow’s nightclub last night

But I think maybe I would prefer a circus clown’s car, a bit ramshackle, with the engine blowing up and the doors falling off.

Is there something wrong with me? There must be.

The Wurzels are a perfect TV band, You know exactly what you are getting. Brilliant populist entertainment which can be repeated exactly in rehearsal, dress rehearsal and on the recording or live show.

Why they do not appear more on TV, I don’t know. They are peaktime entertainers who appeal to all ages.

Well, maybe I do know.

Presumably it is a sign of the lack of genuine personal taste in a lot of TV shows, made by Oxbridge producers who coldly and impersonally create programmes for what they see as down-market audiences in defined demographics with whom they have nothing in common.

Yesterday I blogged about the TV series Game For a Laugh and Surprise! Surprise! They were created by producers (and, in particular the brilliant executive producer Alan Boyd) who made programmes they themselves wanted to watch. I have a feeling some producers now are making ITV programmes for highly researched ‘target audiences’ but would never dream of watching the type of programme they themselves are making – they maybe watch BBC2 and BBC4 at home. The result? Tacky, lowest-common-denominator trash which gets ‘acceptable’ ratings – unlike The X Factor or Britain’s Got Talent which are clearly controlled by people who like their own shows, who understand populist audiences and who therefore get massive mega-ratings.

Perhaps it is no coincidence that both The X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent can be traced back to Pop Idol, which was originally backed by Alan Boyd.

Still, seeing The Wurzels last night was well worth the experience. They really were a band out standing in their own field.

Not in the audience at the Wurzels gig: a humpback whale

And I got chatting to someone who has a relation working at Davis University in California who is researching breath as a way of predicting cancer risks. He has researched humans’ and apes’ and other animals’ breath and has been trying to get samples of whales’ breath.

It is not easy.

I kid you not.

It made my evening.

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

So You Think You’re Funny?

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

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

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

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

Karen Koren is definitely not an English man

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The original very very late-night Fringe show

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

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

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

“Financially or physically?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Did I mention the Malcolm Hardee Show?

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

In Edinburgh, promotion is everything.

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

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

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

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

“And that was the act?” I asked.

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

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

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

“Censorship is a variable art,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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Less than six degrees of separation for Malcolm Hardee, Ridley Scott, Stevie Wonder, EdFringe and Apple iPhones

Paul Wiffen knows how to use Stevie Wonder’s thumb print

I am interested in the concept of six degrees of separation, because it is usually an overestimate.

I had a drink again yesterday with the indefatigable criminal-turned-author-turned-film-producer Jason Cook, who is putting together a movie The Devil’s Dandruff, based on There’s No Room For Jugglers in My Circus, the first of his three semi-autobiographical crime/drug trade novels.

He has now teamed up with Paul Wiffen who, like Jason, is what Hollywood calls a ‘hyphenate’.

He is a director-producer-composer-sound designer-performer and even, much to his own surprise, appearing in a cardigan in the closing ceremony of the London Olympic Games.

It turned out that Paul’s father was born in Chadwell Heath in Essex and Paul lives there now.

“That’s a coincidence,” I said.

It is the outer suburb of London where my parents briefly lived when my family first came down from Scotland. My teenage years were spent in nearby Seven Kings, where the perhaps one-mile long high road was lined almost entirely with second hand car dealers.

“This was,” I told Paul yesterday, “before the name John went out of fashion because of – I think – Alexei Sayle’s song Ullo John, Got a New Motor? making it a naff name.”

“That’s a coincidence,” Paul said. I was at school with Rik Mayall. I was in a school production of Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead. I was Rosencrantz; he was Guildenstern and we also did Waiting For Godot, but I wasn’t one of the two leads: I was the guy who comes on as the horse.”

When Paul left school and went to Oxford University, he joined the Oxford University Drama Group but found others were better at acting, so he concentrated on doing the music.

“At the Edinburgh Fringe,” he told me yesterday, “I was in this terrible po-faced Oxford production of A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream. But, that same year, my friend Lindsay was musical director of a Cambridge Footlights’ comedy production at the Fringe which had Stephen Fry, Emma Thompson, Hugh Laurie and Tony Slattery. Lindsay got food poisoning one night and I filled-in for three or four days.”

“Oh,” I asked. “Was Emma Thompson also performing at a venue called The Hole in The Ground that year?”

“I think she was,” Paul replied.

“Well that’s another coincidence, then,” I said. “I think that might have been the year when The Hole in the Ground had three tents in it – for Emma Thompson, The Greatest Show on Legs and American performance artist Eric Bogosian. My comedian chum Malcolm Hardee got pissed-off by the noise Eric Bogosian made during The Greatest Show on Legs’ performances – and Bogosian had made Emma Thompson cry – so Malcolm got a tractor and drove it, naked, through the middle of Bogosian’s show.”

While at Oxford, Paul also got an early taste of movie-making when he was an extra in the Oxford-shot ‘Harvard’ scenes of Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate (the movie which destroyed United Artists).

“I was three behind Kirs Kristoffersen in the awards ceremony,” he told me, “but I was cut out of the ‘short’ version of Heaven’s Gate shown in Britain, so I have never actually seen myself in it!”

By 1982, after he graduated from Oxford University with a Master’s Degree in Languages, he shared a flat on the Goldhawk Road in West London.

“I went to some party that was a Who’s Who of early alternative comedy,” he told me, “and somebody introduced me to this rather chubby bloke saying: This is Alexei Sayle from Liverpool.

“I got on really well with him cos I grew up in Liverpool and he said: Oh, we’re doin’ a music video tomorrow morning in Goldhawk Road. Why don’t you come down. So I stood in the background on a car lot on the Goldhawk Road about three streets away from where I lived and watched them shoot Ullo John, Got a New Motor?

Later, Paul was involved in five Ridley Scott directed movies, the first as sound designer on the Blade Runner soundtrack composed by Vangelis. The gas explosions burning on the skyline are actually, Paul told me, slowed-down timpani “because explosions didn’t work.

“Most of the first three weeks on that project,” he said, “I had no idea what I was working on. There was super secrecy. I thought I was doing a Coca Cola advert. I wasn’t allowed in the main room to see what was being projected but, once, I looked through the door and saw this space ship floating across with Drink Coke on it. After three weeks, I realised Maybe even Coca Cola adverts don’t go on this long.

“Then I went on to another Vangelis soundtrack which was The Bounty starring Mel Gibson and Anthony Hopkins, directed by Roger Spottiswood. I didn’t do any work with Roger Spottiswood at all. On the final third of his pictures, Ridley Scott has the composer in the room with him – editor, composer, composer’s team and Ridley. Spottiswood wasn’t there.

“For The Bounty, we did the whole score on the 9th floor of the Hotel Pierre on Central Park in New York. Vengelis had the whole of the 9th floor because, he told me, he knew he would be making so much noise the hotel could not put anyone else on the 9th floor. It turned out the movie budget had also paid for every room on the 8th and the 10th floors as well, so Vengelis could compose the soundtrack on the 9th.

“The next time Vangelis called me was for a terrible Italian film called Francesco – the story of St Francis of Assisi with Mickey Rourke strangely cast as the saint. Vengelis always works evenings and nights, so we were there at 4 o’clock in the morning scoring this scene in which Mickey Rourke rolls bollock-naked in a snow drift – apparently St Francis used to assuage his natural urges by doing this. So we are sitting there watching Mickey Rourke rolling bollock-naked in slow motion in a snow drift and Vangelis turns to me and says: Sometimes, this is the best job in the world… but tonight it’s the fucking worst.”

That is a key scene in the planned movie which Paul hopes to make about Vangelis. He would direct the film and also play Vangelis.

“And he’s happy with that?” I asked.

“Oh yes,” said Paul, “I first suggested the idea to him about two years ago. The main thing is he wants anyone who plays him to be actually able to play the piano.

“The only other film I did with Vangelis was 1492: Conquest of Paradise. I was supposed to do some stuff on Alexander, but I ended up getting 30 seconds of my music in the film and nothing with Vangelis. I’ve done two other movies with Ridley, both with Hans Zimmer – Black Rain and Gladiator. I think I’ve done 17 films with Hans Zimmer.

“On Gladiator, I did a lot of the synthesizers behind Lisa Gerrard, who plays the zither and sings on that score. That was probably the longest project I’ve ever worked on: it was over a year.”

For the last four years, Paul has been developing a movie script with Laurence Marks & Maurice Gran: a feature film version of their New Statesman TV series with Rik Mayall.

“The plot,” says Paul, “is about how Alan B’stard is responsible for the credit crunch and all that money that’s disappeared – Alan’s got it all.”

Gran & Marks are also, says Paul, “developing their half-hour TV comedy drama Goodnight Sweetheart as a 90-minute stage musical”

Between 2001-2004, Paul told me, he “realised the music industry was dying on its feet and I wanted to get into the film industry. I reckoned the only job that could get me from one to the other was working for Apple computers.

“I did the first ever demonstration of an iPod in Europe. The original pre-release version of the iPod recorded sound, but Steve Jobs got so worried about the idea it might be used to bootleg concerts that they actually took the capabilities off the first iPod they released.

“As part of what I did for the next two years, I had to work on the beta versions of new products and they sent me through – in great secrecy – what they called ‘an audio and video recording iPod’. Do you know what that was?”

“What?” I asked.

“It was the iPhone. We just thought it recorded audio and shot video. It looked very similar to what it looks like now, but telephones weren’t that shape in those days. Another team was working on the telephone part of it.

“I pointed out to them that, when you scrolled, it took a long time to go through long lists because it stopped every time you took your finger off. I said, Why don’t you make it so, once you swipe your finger and lift it off, the menu keeps spinning like a globe of the world does if you spin it. So you can spin it and then put your finger on again to stop it where you want…. 2004 that was.”

“Great idea!” I said. “You should be working for Apple at Cupertino!”

“I lived in California from 1986 to 1992,” Paul replied, “and I told myself I’m only going back when I’m a famous film director.”

“Maybe The Devil’s Dandruff will be the one,” I told him.

Jason Cook smiled.

“If you want to get an American work visa,” Paul said to me, “do you know how to get one?”.

“Marriage?” I suggested.

“No,” said Paul. “You get Stevie Wonder to put his thumb print on the application and then they have to grant your work permit, otherwise they’re not allowed to keep the piece of paper with his thumb print. There are always people in the Immigration & Naturalization Service that are big Stevie Wonder fans.”

Paul worked for nine months doing ‘sound design’ on Stevie Wonder’s album Characters which had one hit single –  Skeletons – which was used in the limousine sequence of the movie Die Hard.

Movies, music, Malcolm Hardee, Stevie Wonder, Bruce Willis.

Six degrees of separation is usually an overestimate.

Or maybe Paul Wiffen just has his fingers in lots of pies.

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Filed under Coincidence, Comedy, Movies, Music

Eccentrics think differently – but maybe everyone else is out-of-step

(This blog was also published in the Huffington Post)

Someone somewhere sometime – well, it may have been Victoria Melody in Lincoln yesterday (more about her later) said: “We are only as interesting as the people we know”.

And I do try my best.

Yesterday I went to an Eccentrics Symposium at the University of Lincoln. Purely as an observer, you understand.

I went along with my chum mad inventor John Ward, whose yo-yo safety net (a hair net attached to the yo-yo-using person’s leg) once got a two-page spread in German magazine Stern when they were writing about serious conservation issues. John says:

“I have found that, if you keep a straight face, people will print anything. James Dyson will be remembered for inventing his vacuum cleaner; Frank Whittle will be remembered for inventing the jet engine; and I will be remembered for inventing the electric bra-warmer.”

(It was featured in the science pages of the Guardian.)

Interestingly each of the speakers claimed that he or she was not actually an eccentric himself or herself – except for John who had little alternative but to admit it, as he has featured in various academic books on eccentricity.

Anthony Schrag, the first speaker, grew up in Africa and was nicknamed ‘Wrinkle Blue Bum’ as a child because he liked to climb trees so much that he reminded his friends of local apes. He is an artist interested in the way people move. His CV says he focuses on “blowing things up, climbing on things and occasionally kidnapping people”.

Yesterday, he revealed he had discovered that, if you tightly wrap a boy in a blanket or similar covering and roll him down a hill, the boy cannot stop himself rolling. He also persuaded the audience to try the internet craze of ‘planking‘ – lying straight, across unlikely objects… though the President of the World Egg Throwing Federation (of whom more later) claimed that, on the internet, ‘planking’ has been replaced by the craze of doing a ‘Batman’ – hanging upside-down by your toes from unlikely objects.

John Plowman talked about his hats – he always wears one except when having a bath and having sex and buys them in London, New York, Chicago and – well – anywhere… mostly pork pie hats although, he admitted, this is rather odd as he is a vegetarian.  He seemed to have bought two non-pork pie hats because they have initials inside them; one of those two had his own initials inside them. He always carries an umbrella with him because he does not like his hats to get wet.

Project Pigeon’, an “art and education project which works with pigeons as a vehicle to bring people together”, did not send anyone along but they did send a video along which included shots of pigeons doing back flips. These are a specific type of pigeon and they have to be kept in quite small cages to prevent their tumbling getting out of control.

Unless I misunderstood, tumbling pigeon and ‘parlour rolling’ contests are held and this type of pigeon was specifically developed by a bus driver in Birmingham in the early 20th century by selective breeding. Quite how he chose pigeons with the appropriate genes I am uncertain. The Project Pigeon website claims that this particular type of pigeon is “the uniquely acrobatic Birmingham Roller, a type that originated in 1920 in Bordesley Green, Birmingham, after local fancier William Penson noticed one of his birds perform a backflip while in flight.”

It looks to me a bit like the pigeon is having a panic attack but, according to Project Pigeon, “today there are hundreds of Birmingham Roller clubs around the world and fiercely fought competitions to pick the birds that perform the most dramatic tumbling.”

The utterly fascinating Victoria Melody  as previously alluded to – “We are only as interesting as the people we know” – had actually spent about a year living with pigeon fanciers because she has a passion for other people’s passions. She said that, when she put an ad in a magazine saying she wanted to live with pigeon fanciers for a year, she got a lot of responses from much older single men living alone.

Yesterday, she screened a video taken by a tiny camera and transmitter which she had attached to a pigeon which then flew across Brighton; she says she received and recorded the pictures using a satellite dish on top of a car. The pigeon, alas, went AWOL.

An even briefer video of two pigeons playing ping pong was apparently shot by B.F.Skinner, the highly admirable man who later created the concept of a pigeon guided missile during World War Two: a concept which I feel the US military was short-sighted in rejecting.

But Victoria Melody’s passion for people’s passions stretches far wider than pigeon-fanciers. She spent a year immersed in the fascinating Northern Soul scene – centred round what she described as “the Motown Music that never made it into the charts”. It was a year, as she described it, of “being taught how to dance in people’s living rooms”.

Her latest cultural immersions have been dog shows (with her Basset hound Major Tom) and the world of beauty pageants, specifically preparing for next year’s Miss Galaxy 2012, where all contestants have to be married women.

Which brings us to Andy Dunlop, aforementioned President of the World Egg Throwing Federation, which was formed in 2006 though the sport started in 1322 in Swaton, Lincolnshire. Andy has managed to persuade the English Sports Council to recognise four of the five main egg throwing disciplines as legitimate sports. These are:

– two-person Throw and Catch, which consists of one catcher and one tosser.

– six or seven-person Static Relay (in which competitors pass eggs to each other by throwing them).

– individual Target Throwing, although Andy did not mention to the English Sports Council that, at the annual World Egg Throwing Championships, the target is the World Gravy Wrestling Champion – with extra points for hitting his groin.

– team Egg Trebuchet, a trebuchet being a large catapult-like siege engine which was employed by armies in the Middle Ages.

The English Sports Council, rather short-sightedly in both Andy’s and my opinion, refused to recognise as a legitimate sport (despite the obvious skill required) Russian Egg Roulette.

This involves guessing – sorry, skilfully choosing – which individual egg in a six-pack of eggs is raw as opposed to hard-boiled. Five are hard boiled; one is raw. Contestants, with handkerchiefs tied round their foreheads, as in the Vietnam movie The Deer Hunter, then smash the eggs on their foreheads to prove/disprove their choice. Obviously, the one who smashes a raw egg onto his or her forehead loses.

Victoria Melody attempted this with tragic results. Her hair was still sticky with raw egg 40 minutes later.

Egg Throwing is a fast-spreading sporting event. This year, the World Championships in Lincolnshire attracted TV crews from 26 TV stations worldwide. The Deputy Vice President of the World Egg Throwing Federation is former British Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott – or, at least, Andy Dunlop chose Mr Prescott’s non-refusal of the offer to be an acceptance. Likewise, he took actor George Clooney’s non-refusal to attend the World Egg Throwing Championships as an acceptance and got worldwide press publicity across the globe for George Clooney’s decision to turn up at the championships in Lancashire which, sadly, he did not.

But, as Andy says, “it cost nothing, got us worldwide publicity and was better than paying £60 to put an ad in the local paper”.

This is a major factor as important in general eccentricity as it is in egg-throwing.

A more serious point was made by Andy when he pointed out that it was only a few centuries ago when almost everyone believed the world was flat and that the planets all revolved around the Earth. People who thought the world was round and that the earth revolved around the Sun were seen as slightly mad eccentrics.

And who was right?

The minority.

The eccentrics.

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Filed under Comedy, Eccentrics, Sport