Tag Archives: xenophobia

The early days of the Comedy Store and the alleged toilet habits of Irishmen

Tunnel Arts - Malcolm’s early management company

Malcolm Hardee’s early agenting company

In a couple of blogs this week, I quoted from a chat I had with performer Tony Green about the early days of alternative comedy in London. He remembers those days; I don’t really.

Around 1985/1986 I was a researcher on ITV show Game For a Laugh and was looking for bizarre acts. It was around that time I must have met the late Malcolm Hardee, who was agenting acts through his Tunnel Arts organisation (though the word organisation may be a slight exaggeration).

And I have a vague memory of Eddie Izzard standing in a doorway in the narrow alleyway housing the Raymond Revuebar in Soho trying to entice people into an upstairs room where he was running a comedy club. I do not remember the acts, I just remember it was rather small, brightly lit and desperate and I seem to remember the smell of seemingly irrelevant talcum powder.

“When the Comedy Store first started…” Tony Green told me, “…when anyone could go – it was Peter Rosengard’s idea – it would be a Saturday night and somebody would say:

What are you doing tonight?

I dunno really.

Tony Green back in the day (Photograph courtesy of Anna Smith)

Tony Green back in the early days…(Photograph courtesy of Anna Smith)

You want a few free drinks? Well, there’s a place round the corner called The Comedy Store. They’ll give you a few free drinks if you get on stage and, if you do well, they may even book you and you’ll get more than a few free drinks and you’ll meet quite a lot of other comics.

Alexei Sayle was the compere. He became a writer after that. Probably gave up the ghost realising he couldn’t change the world because it’s not possible. It’s like bashing your head against a brick wall.

Tony Allen took over from Alexei and I was very happy when Tony was there because, if people gonged me off, Tony would say I’m not gonging him off because I like what he’s got to say, whereas Alexei wasn’t always quite so kind.

“You never knew what you might get on those Saturday nights. It could be quite riotous. We’d get some really nutty acts there – as far as I was concerned, the nuttier the better. Some of the people were terribly boring, but some weren’t.

Keith Allen was probably the best at that time. And there was Chris Lynam sticking a banger up his bum with The Greatest Show On Legs.

At the Tunnel, Malcolm Hardee (left) and Chris Lynam with a firework up his bum. CREDIT Geraint Lewis

At the Tunnel Club, Malcolm Hardee watches Chris Lynam with a firework up his bum. (Photograph by Geraint Lewis)

“My old friend Ian Hinchliffe had taken in a lodger – Captain Keano’s cousin.”

I should mention at this point that I never knowingly saw Captain Keano – a Covent Garden street performer friend of Eddie Izzard – but this blog’s occasional Canadian correspondent Anna Smith last year told me in a blog:

“Captain Keano (Paul Keane) used to print his own money – headed The Bank of Entertainment – and give away the pound note sized currency instead of business cards. The notes had on them his phone number, a drawing of himself and the promise printed thereon: I WILL DO IT ALL – ALL YOU NEED TO DO IS CALL. How innocent.”

“What did Captain Keano’s cousin do?” I asked Tony Green.

“I think his profession was that of horse-breaker,” Tony told me.

“What?” I asked.

Tony Green today remembers his early days

Tony Green today remembers tales of Irish toilets

“Breaking-in horses in Ireland,” replied Tony. “He had a very heavy Irish accent. He wasn’t always that easy to understand. A nice man, a very very heavy drinker, and as strong as an ox.

“Anyway, he needed somewhere to live and my friend Ian Hinchliffe, being the big-hearted man he was, said I’ve got a three-bedroomed place. You can come and stay with me – meaning for a few weeks.

“But, seven months later, Captain Keano’s cousin was still there.

“He was paying rent, but the problem was… I dunno… This will probably sound racist. It isn’t meant to be… There’s an Irish pub near where I live… Somebody once said to me: When you go to the toilet, why is there always shit and piss all over the floor?

“Well, a lot of Irish people I know won’t sit on the seat, because they’re afraid of getting diseases, thinking somebody sitting on that place before them may have had some kind of sexual disease. So they tend to stand on the toilet seat. Sometimes the shit – forgive me, faecal matter – would miss the toilet seat and go down the side of the toilet and very few men would actually pick it up.

“Keano’s cousin had this habit – When he went to the toilet, he would piss all over the floor and I think Ian put a sign above the toilet saying IF YOU MUST PISS – AND, OF COURSE, YOU MUST – WOULD YOU PLEASE DO IT HORIZONTALLY AS OPPOSED TO VERTICALLY.

“I’m not sure that made any sense, but he was actually saying: If you’re going to piss all over the floor, would you please wipe it up, because it’s driving me round the bend every time I myself go to the toilet. 

“After seven months Ian, possibly emulating the man’s Irish accent, told me: He’s the divil of a divil and I want him out.

“I said: What do you want me to do? Get some big, heavy team in to throw him out? He knows he’s got to go. It was supposed to be three weeks; it’s been seven months. You should never have offered it to him in the first place. That kind of hospitality is not always a good idea.

“So Ian was phoning me all the time and phoning Chris Lynam all the time.

“Eventually, Chris drove over there one night at three o’clock in the morning:

Where is he?

He’s asleep in that bedroom.

“So Chris went into the bedroom and packed Captain Keano’s cousin’s clothes into a suitcase. Chris is not the biggest of men, but he managed to throw this big horse-breaker out of the front door – he was half unconscious, from what I heard and still somewhat drunk.

“When he woke up in the morning, he was outside Ian’s front door. Ian told him he wasn’t letting him back in: he had to find somewhere else to live and he’d see him in the pub later that day. And Ian phoned up Chris to thank him for what he did.

“Next time I saw Chris – about two weeks later – I told him: That was a really good thing you did, Chris, because the man was driving Ian round the bend. But, the thing is, Chris, you’re not that big and he’s an ex-horse breaker…

“Chris looked at me in amazement and said: Did I do that?

“Chris had no recollection of doing it. I don’t know where Chris was that night in his headspace, but Ian was eternally grateful.”

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Filed under Comedy, Ireland, London, Racism

Political comedy, racism and Jew jokes

Liam Lonergan. Is all racism a black and white issue?

A Liam Lonergan photo. Not everything is so black and white.

Yesterday’s blog was a continuation of a chat I had with Liam Lonergan for his BA (Hons) course in Creative and Media Writing at the University of Portsmouth.

Earlier in our chat, we talked partly about my idea that British sitcoms which have lasted the test of time have often been set in tragic not comic situations.

Here is another extract:

__________

Liam: It’s sort of a rubbish question and I hate asking it but Is comedy actually important?

John: I guess it must be important because if there’s a totalitarian regime they don’t allow it. I somehow suspect there were not many Nazi comedy clubs – or, if there were, the jokes were all about Jews. So maybe they had some great Jewish jokes. Swings and roundabouts.

But totalitarian regimes are frightened of comedy and frightened of humour. If you made a joke about General Franco in Spain in the 1950s you would got arrested. Because I think you can change people’s opinions – slowly – with comedy. The trouble with a lot of political comedy, of course, is that comics are preaching to the converted. The left wing comedians who seem terribly popular are popular with left wing audiences. So they’re not actually doing anything at all.

Liam: Politics has merged into one now…

John: In the 1980s alternative comedy started because it was Mrs Thatcher. It took off because she was perceived as a right-wing, fairly authoritarian prime minister and the left-wingers had a field day. With the Conservatives (effectively) back in power, I don’t quite understand why that left-wing political comedy thing hasn’t come back again.

Liam: I think it’s easy to chuck something at something that’s made of lead – like Thatcher – but something that’s made of marshmallow, like Cameron… there’s no point chucking anything at it. It just moulds itself to accommodate the object that’s being flung at it.

Ben Elton used to be a political comic

Ben Elton – he used to be a political comic back in the 1980s

John: Maybe it was all done before in the 1980s and you can’t repeat… you can’t swim the same river twice or something. I dunno… Errr.. I have no idea where I’m going with this. Have you found out what your actual thesis is yet?

Liam: Well, I think you opened it up for me when you talked earlier about this comedy/tragedy thing. That’s something I’ve been really interested in for ages. So I think I might lean it towards that.

John: Well, American TV sitcoms like Cheers and all those shows, they’re written by committees and it’s gag, gag, gag, gag, gag and not really primarily personality based. David Croft’s BBC ensemble sitcoms, which are almost in a class of their own, were by-and-large written by two people: David Croft and someone else. They are by-and-large personality based. They’re not primarily gag based. Dad’s Army does have lots of gags in it but it’s actually personality based.

Most other British sitcoms that have lasted are personality-based in a tragic situation… Terry and June has not lasted; One Foot In The Grave has.

Liam: Do you think there’s any American comedy that has that vein – that sort of dark thread running through it – that you like?

John: I did like Maude. Have you ever seen Maude?

Liam: No.

John: It was with Bea Arthur. She went on to be in The Golden Girls as well. But Maude was sometimes wonderfully dark and she was an arguably sometimes unsympathetic central character. In Britain, it was transmitted as a half hour with one commercial break in the middle.

Bea Arthur as Maude with Bill Macy as husband Walter

Bea Arthur as Maude; Bill Macy as husband Walter

She’s a married late middle-aged woman and, in this one particular episode I remember, her husband’s long-lost chum who had been with him during the War was gonna turn up. He turns up at the end of Part One and he’s excited to meet his long-lost comrade and goes “Urghh!!” and falls on the floor behind the settee. Cut to commercial break. When you come back… he’s dead! So for the whole of the second half of the episode, the husband’s going: “Oh my god. I killed him! If I hadn’t arranged this today!… Oh my god, he had a heart attack…I killed my best friend!”

Bloody hell! This is an American sitcom! And Maude was sort of dark and had… It was more sort of vaguely Jewish humour.

Liam: With the American Office you’ve got to separate it from the British version. It’s a completely different sort of beast. The main character played by Steve Carrell is, in a more subtle way… he’s a dark character. The fact that he’s absolutely full of desperation and is in love with this idea of love but it’s never fulfilled.

John: Another British comedy set in an unfunny situation (that was funny) is Till Death Us Do Part. I saw a few episodes of the American version – All In The Family –  and it wasn’t as dark. He was not as dislikeable a character.

Also ‘dislikable’ is in the eye of the beholder.

Till Death Us Do Part was interesting because it was written by Johnny Speight and supposedly Alf Garnett was a character to be despised and frowned upon. But I always had a feeling that it reinforced people’s prejudices. People who were already bigoted wouldn’t be turned by the way his character was written. We’re talking about trying to change people’s attitudes. The whole point of that was to turn people’s attitudes so they realised what a bigot he was and I’m sure…

Liam: …it reinforced it.

John: Yes, absolutely reinforced the bigotry. I’m sure if you were that sort of person you would sit there and think: “Yeah, Alf’s quite right. That Liverpool yobbo son-in-law IS a wanker and Alf is the voice of reason.”

Liam: I think Jimmy Carr has used quotes… holding a mirror up to racism and laughing at racism rather than race. He’s laughing at the racism rather than race.

Love Thy Neighbour - top-rating comedy show

Love Thy Neighbour – a top-rating comedy show of the 1970s

John: I always thought Love Thy Neighbour – which has not lasted, because it wasn’t tragedy – was always very dodgy. I saw it when it first went out and I always thought: “I’m not sure I like this very much”. And Mind Your Language, which was set in a language school, was just full of stereotypes and I thought it…  was just about OK but it wasn’t really… It was just… There’s a difference between…

Liam: Like, cartoon racism?

John: There’s a difference between making fun of stereotypes and being too close to being racist. I think you can say (I’m Scottish myself) all Scots are drunks as a joke. And that’s fine. That’s actual comic social observation, taken to an extreme. There is a drinking problem in Scotland. So Scots are drunk and dour. The Irish are drunk and sing Tiddle-ee-aye music. The Welsh sing a lot in choirs. The English are either toffee-nosed or football hooligans.

Liam: Or sexually repressed.

John: Or sexually repressed. Yeah. Yeah. So there’s a difference between taking a slight tendency to an extreme simply to deliver a punchline and laugh about it… and saying people are to be despised or reviled because of something. That’s arguably the difference between Jewish jokes and jokes about Jews. It’s attitude.

If you’re abroad, the English are seen as two simultaneous stereotypes which are mutually exclusive but which run together. The English are either very snooty, upmarket public school people who look down on you and have a superiority complex – or they’re the dregs-of-society football hooligans. Both views have some basis in reality. And you can make jokes about both. But the first tends towards humour, which is acceptable, and the second tends towards xenophobia, which is not. It’s a fine line and it moves.

… TO BE CONTINUED …

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Filed under Comedy, Politics, Racism

Edinburgh Fringe normality: bonking, flyering, bitches, bosoms, Charlie Chuck

Normal for Edinburgh yesterday

Yesterday, I blogged about a problem Giacinto Palmieri has in his autobiographical show Pagliaccio, which is “a true story of unrequited love and jealousy between comedians living together at the Edinburgh Fringe.”

His problem is that the two other people involved – a man and a woman –  are both in Edinburgh doing shows this year and the man – of whom Giacinto paints an unflattering portrait in the show – wants to come and see the show, not realising he is characterised in it.

Giacinto is not the only one with this type of problem. Another comedian this year includes in his show details of an Edinburgh Fringe love story with an American ‘journalist’ who is back in Edinburgh this year and whom he is now trying to avoid. The barely-disguised ‘journalist’ is actually a comedian and she is telling her side of the story in her own show.

In Edinburgh, that is normality.

Ever-discreet, I am not naming names, but both comics are Facebook friends of mine – and I bumped into one earlier today. If they read this and one or both would like to get more publicity for their show by talking about adding fact into comedy shows while avoiding mentioning the other person, I would be interested to hear. Edinburgh is all about publicity.

Or perhaps I am just getting old and gossipy.

You know you are getting really old when you can walk through Bristo Square during the Edinburgh Fringe and not get flyered for a comedy show. People see this fat bald man ambling along towards them looking like (I am told) a rather shabby bank manager who has just been sacked… and they assume I cannot possibly be interested in comedy shows. For some reason, I am the one who gets given any flyers for shows based on the Greek classics, family traumas and old age angst in North America.

Yesterday, though, I actually got flyered for a comedy show. The flyerer – a well-spoken Englishman of a certain age – followed me, falsely smelling an immediate ‘sale’.

Hennessy and her friends – A History of Violence

The flyer was for Hennessy & Friends’ A History of Violence which, according to a stapled-on piece of paper, The List has called One of the Top 5 sketch comedy shows at the Fringe.

“It’s a girl leaning on what appears to be two severed dead men’s heads,” I observed.

“That’s my daughter,” the flyerer said.

We got into conversation about why some Scots now really do pretty-much hate the English.

“I do feel genuine resentment towards me when they hear my English accent,” the flyerer said.

“I think it was Margaret Thatcher,” I said. “Before that, there was good-natured rivalry like you might find between Lancashire and Yorkshire…”

“I’m from Lancashire,” the man interrupted.

“Well you know then,” I responded. “It’s good-natured. And it used to be the same with Scotland-England. But I think people felt that Margaret Thatcher didn’t give a shit about Scotland. She figured – entirely reasonably – that there was no point sucking up to the Scots because it was not going to get Conservative MPs elected – that was a lost cause. So she ignored Scotland or worse. And, after that, there seemed to be a real animosity crept into the Scotland-England thing.”

“I lived up here in Edinburgh in the late 1980s,” the man told me. “Down near the Dudleys, down Leith way.”

“Before it became Yuppie?”

“Probably. I don’t know. We were looking for a house and couldn’t find one. They told us: We only sell villas in Edinburgh.

“And you pick up a distinct nastiness in the air?” I asked.

“No, no,” he said. “I wouldn’t go so far as to say nasty. If I meet Scotsmen who’ve travelled, they’re a completely different kettle of fish. But I came across someone I don’t think had travelled the day we signed the contracts for selling our house in Edinburgh. Coming out of the Notary’s, my wife and I were talking and this guy heard our accents and, as he came up to us on the pavement, he just went:

Fee-fi-fo-fum…

“Not in an amiable way?” I asked.

“No, there was definitely a bit of sinister stuff there. My wife and I just looked at each other.”

“And your daughter is on this flyer.”

“My daughter’s name is Miranda Hennessy and I’m Gary, her father. She’s an actress but she’s got a comedy bone – you can always tell when someone’s got comedy in them. They’ve scrimped and saved to be able to put this on. They’ve done loads of promotion and got some good Guardian reviews ahead of coming up here.”

Daphna Baram struts her stuff

Edinburgh is all about publicity. Daphna Baram, the stand-up artist formerly known as ‘Miss D’ is performing a show called Half Past Bitch at Bob Slayer’s Fringe venue The Hive.

When she was promoting it on radio in London before she came up to Edinburgh, she tells me:

“The radio station told me they had a very strict policy about swear words and that we would be taken off air immediately if we as much as mentioned the actual name of the show. So we had to refer to the show as Half Past Itch which – as we did not neglect to remind our audience – actually sounded ruder than the show’s real title. We were told that saying ‘vagina’ or ‘chlamydia’ was borderline but ‘bitch’ was totally unacceptable.

“This,” Daphna told me, “led us to a discussion on air about one of your blogs that week, which was all about censorship in the Fringe Programme and I was quoting bits. It was good fun.

“Ironically, when I showed Bob Slayer the poster for Half Past Bitch, he suggested we print the word bitch’ three times its original size. (Note to readers: Bob Slayer had a small part in the movie Killer Bitch which I financed and which also had problems over the use of the word Bitch – with WH Smith’s and the big supermarket chains.)

“Bob,” Daphna told me today, “was totally right. People’s attention is transfixed on the word ‘bitch’ faster than on my spectacular cleavage.”

I saw both Half Past Bitch and Daphna’s cleavage this afternoon. Both were impressive.

And so was her show.

Charlie Chuck gets ahead with a duck for technical rehearsal

But by 5.26pm this afternoon (the exact time is relevant) I was having tea with Charlie Chuck at the SpaceUK venues’ launch. His Cirque du Charlie Chuck show starts tomorrow.

“Me latex suit gets here on Tuesday,” he told me. “It’s orange and blue. The technical rehearsal is at two o’clock today. It’s six o’clock now, so I’ve got 25 minutes to get there.”

In Edinburgh, that is normality.

And, in Edinburgh this is publicity:

Charlie Chuck will be appearing in the two-hour Malcolm Hardee Awards Show on Friday 24th August.

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Filed under Comedy, Marketing, PR, Racism

American comedian Lewis Schaffer on the superiority complex of the English

Lewis Schaffer finds himself alone amid clowns

I was clearing out files and photos on my computer last night and stumbled upon a piece of wisdom from UK-based American comedian Lewis Schaffer which I had cut out of some previous blog back in the mists of time.

I am not sure if is about xenophobia or national insecurities or neither or both.

At first, I thought Ooh. That might be interesting because of the nationalistic rivalries revealed during the Euro 2012 football tournament.

Then I thought: Well, I suppose ‘twas ever thus and f’rever will be, so it is always relevant and worthwhile posting for that reason.

Then I thought: Well, it will fill up today’s blog space quickly and I have to get out of the house.

So this is what Lewis Schaffer said to me a few months ago:

_____

English people look down on Australians and New Zealanders. They are seen as cuddly because they are weak – like Irish people. English people look down on Irish people because they think they are weaker.

It’s not the case that every country looks down on everyone else.

Some countries you look up to because you’re afraid of them. You think, “Wow! They’re better than us!”

America, for example.

Or is that true?

Do the English look up to America or down on America? I don’t know.

English people look down on everybody who comes from any other country because they are not English. English people look down on Americans, because they look down on everybody, because the English are so arrogant, even more than the French.

French people think that France is the greatest country in the world, but they think what makes it not great is the dirty foreigners.

On the other hand, English people think that England is great and the only thing that stops England being great is other English people.

An Englishman thinks: “If it wasn’t for the other English people – if it was just me – this country would be unbelievably great!”

The average English person thinks: “If I was in charge of the NHS or in charge of football, the NHS would be great and we’d win every game.”

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Filed under Comedy, England, Racism

Three comedians & a baby in Australia + the problem of German stereotypes

(Part of this blog was also published in the Huffington Post)

Things are looking up Down Under.

I got a message yesterday from Australia, which started:

Carlsberg don’t do Press Releases, but if they did perhaps it would read…

It then told me that amiable British sub-mariner turned stand-up comedian Eric had had a baby. Well, Helen had. This somewhat belated (it arrived on 31st January!) ‘press release’ read:

Tuesday December 27 2011 at Flinders Medical Centre, Adelaide, South Australia …. 09:03hrs ACDT (23:33hrs Monday 26 Dec GMT)

Blonde Hair. Blue Eyes. Both mother and baby are doing well. After a process that began on Xmas morning at 9am Both parents are tired but absolutely delighted.

Sorry we couldn’t notify you before, but we are exhausted and so are our phone batteries. This info is somewhat belated, but as you can imagine our lives have been literally turned ‘upside down’. We have been trying to send you this for a while now…

I also got a message from a euphoric Bob Slayer in Australia saying:

Hey, Mr John, The Drum magazine wrote a nice feature on me on page 21 in their centre spread and I had an interview on RTRfm Radio in Perth. I like to think that I managed to be surprisingly funny, considering it was 8:25am. I did not know before this there were two 8.25s in the day. My first show is tonight, tickets seem to be selling at a beautiful rate and I have negotiated free beer from the venue!

Comedian three in this blog is Paco Erhard, who is taking his 5-Step Guide to Being German show to the Adelaide Fringe and Melbourne International Comedy Festival after a one-off at London’s Leicester Square Theatre on 13th February. This is the show I saw at the Edinburgh Fringe last August and wrote about in a So It Goes blog and in Mensa Magazine (Paco is a member).

On his re-designed website, he quotes a line of mine:

Paco Erhard is a German comic, not a comic German

“Quoting a nonentity like me smacks of desperation,” I suggested to him. “And you have five star reviews you can quote from reputable publications. Festivals Review said you were one of the ten best shows at the Fringe!”

“Well,” he replied, “your quote expresses too nicely how I want to be seen to not use it.”

So what will Australians make of Paco’s German show?

“I try to refute German stereotypes,” he tells me, “but, ironically, I actually have quite a bit of difficulty making people believe I’m really German. I don’t look or sound stereotypically German enough, especially outside my solo show – ie in normal comedy gigs.

“Some people watch my act for 20 minutes, hear me talk about being German and they’ll still think Why is this Irish guy pretending to be German? It’s a weird, paradoxical situation. Should I put on a German accent and dye my hair blond, in order to convince people that Germans are not like they think?  It’s ridiculous that I should have to desperately convince people I am German, thereby conjuring up all the stereotypes that they allegedly hold about Germans, just in order to then blame them for thinking what I have just brought up and then telling them what we’re really like. Okay, this is an extreme description, but there is a bit of that involved in some comedy club gigs that I do.

“That’s why I like festivals more at present, because there the people come to see my show because they are interested in the topic and it is established well before the show that I am really German. That way I can just be myself more or less. However, I do have some sort of accent, so if I don’t say anything about where I’m from, they’ll sit there more focussed on trying to find out where my accent is from than on my comedy. Maybe I should just use my real name, Erhard Hübener. But I wanna see the MC who can pronounce that or the punter who will remember it after the gig, no matter how much he liked me. I could be on TV every day and, in the credits, I’d probably still be called The German guy. Oh well.

“I don’t think my show is a show about stereotypes. I try to go beyond that. But I do address the stereotypes at the beginning of the show. It’s important to me to do that in a clever, deconstructive, ridiculing way (although I still have one or two in there that are a bit naff… but hey, they get a laugh and I’m a whore…)… it would be a lie to say I don’t do stereotypes at all. However, I think you have to address them to get them out of the way. It would be silly to pretend they aren’t there. And, especially when talking to people who still cherish some of those stereotypes somewhere deep in their hearts, you have to pick them up where they are… they won’t follow you on the journey of your show if you depart from a point of knowledge or an attitude that they don’t have yet.

“I am off to Adelaide and Melbourne on the 21st of February and I think doing the Australian festivals will make me a much better comedian. In my comedy here in Britain I still lean on the (alleged) British-German conflict too much, which is one thing I really want to get away from. I was strongly influenced by my five or six years of being a compere to those Sun-reading package-holiday imbeciles in Majorca, most of whom I actually liked, but a considerable amount of whom gave me a lot of (stupid) shit about being German.

“Some Brits seem to think that they have a sense of humour or know how to be funny (there’s a difference between these two) when in reality they are just stupid, unoriginal and offensive. (But it’s okay, you know, because everybody knows that, just like fish, Germans don’t have feelings.) So I came to Britain thinking I would be up against a lot of hostility just because of my nationality and that I’d better talk about being German a lot and also giving them a bit of a hard time for being British. While I realised quickly that British people in Britain were very, very different from the ones I had encountered on Spain’s beaches, that old feeling of hurt and defensiveness paired with a certain aggressiveness remained with me for quite a bit of time and I think hasn’t completely gone away yet. It was a real epiphany a few months ago when I realised that most Brits actually quite like the Germans.

“Anyway, this whole issue won’t be, well, ‘an issue’ in Australia. Which will be a relief, a challenge and an adventure all rolled in one. I’m free of all that old We don’t like each other bullshit, that subconscious unrealistic feeling that somehow there is a rift between me and the audience (that I then involuntarily fortify by addressing it implicitly). I can’t use that as a crutch anymore. All of that material I had best forget about doing in Australia. They won’t care. So I will have to dig deep within myself for the things I really want to say. Which I already did to a large degree at the Edinburgh Fringe last August. But I know my show can definitely be further purged of all that. And I have a lot of stuff I’ve been wanting to say for a long time… and I will say it now in Australia. Also, I will improve the show’s structure a lot for Australia. And then I’ll bring all that back to Britain. (And also I will have free rein to say some rough things about Britain without hurting anybody’s feelings or getting bottles thrown at me :-D)

“I will need quite a bit of new material for Australia, but I see that more as an opportunity to finally use some great material I’ve been writing for years and that I never got to do.

“I have some concerns, but they are less to do with the art, than the marketing. I’ve been bitching about having gotten a lot of grief from Brits about being German, but being ‘a German comedian’ simply is a fantastic selling point in Britain. I do think I had a good or maybe even very good show in Edinburgh, so yes, I delivered, but I think lots of people came because GERMAN COMEDIAN stands out of the crowd more than “British white middle-class comedian, number 2417”. It’s a selling point and it helps me. Not when I’m on stage – then I better be funny – but to get people into my shows. And I don’t know if this selling point is quite so strong in Australia. They live on the other side of the world, so their attitude to Germany is bound to be very different from Britain’s, which has had a direct relationship with Germany – in good times and in bad ones – for centuries. They might not go for it as much. Who knows? I hope they do.”

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Filed under Australia, Comedy, Germany, Racism, Theatre, Uncategorized

Reasons for celebration in the British comedy industry

Yesterday and today have been days of me hearing about travel but not actually going anywhere myself except travelling for tea in Soho via a train in which the stranger opposite me kept farting… and driving from Greenwich to Borehamwood and finding the M25 turn-off I needed was closed.

This is neither glamorous nor very interesting.

But I had tea yesterday with someone who shall be nameless who was celebrating the fact that football manager Harry Redknapp, currently on trial for tax evasion, had opened a bank account in Monaco in the name of his dog.

“It’s comedy gold,” this nameless person enthused. “Writers and comedians all over the country must be celebrating. They say it’s all Rover? It is now.”

The reason this person cannot be named is that he told me a relation of his is an alcoholic who lives in Finland.

“Why does he live in Finland?” I asked.

“Because he is an alcoholic,” came the reply. “So, in Finland, he seems perfectly normal or even sober.”

This rings true. As I have previously blogged, I do not think I have ever met a sober Finn. Very nice people. But mostly drunk most of the time.

You cannot beat a good xenophobic generalisation, I find.

Take the cliché of the drunken Englishman abroad…

From Australia yesterday, I got two e-mails from English comedian Bob Slayer, a would-be Foreign Correspondent for this very So It Goes blog which you are reading.

The first e-mail read:

“I did warn you that the combination of alcohol and an iPad could make some of my reports incomprehensible. I am currently full of drink in a Burger King (they call them Hungry Jack’s out here) where they have free interweb. I will get a bus to the airport and fly to Perth. Where it is hot. I have no more energy to type anything of note. Goodbye Melbourne, you beautiful backward en-trend land of ladies in summery dresses and cowboy boots – I will miss you.”

The second, later, e-mail read:

“I have arrived in Perth and one wheel has fallen off my suitcase (I had already lost a handle in Melbourne). This is somewhat impeding my progress.”

Bob Slayer has always told me that his decision to enter the world of comedy as a stand-up (after ten years behind-the-scenes in the music business) was made after reading godfather-of-British-alternative-comedy Malcolm Hardee’s autobiography I Stole Freddie Mercury’s Birthday Cake.

I have always had a suspicion that Bob mis-read Malcolm’s character in the book and got the idea that he was a very loud, constantly-drunk, OTT extrovert anarchist. In fact, like many great characters, Malcolm was a rather shy, occasionally drunk, occasionally OTT introverted extrovert with anarchic tendencies.

Now I fear Bob may be modelling himself on Hunter S. Thompson’s book Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. This can only lead to drug-fuelled paranoia, guns and a surprisingly bad film by Johnny Depp and Terry Gilliam.

However, it might well also result in some good blogs. So I shall, in a subtle spirit of amoral comradeship, encourage Bob on his downward spiral of self-destructive excess.

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Racial and racist jokes + what comic Bernard Manning told Lewis Schaffer

(A version of this blog was also published on the Chortle comedy website)

Whenever I mention the late comedian Bernard Manning in a blog, the number of hits goes up because some people get offended by the mere mention of him. It is like rattling the cage of a PC parakeet.

Live on stage, Bernard Manning was one of the best technical comedians I have ever seen .

In yesterday’s blog – in passing – I mentioned both Bernard Manning and American comedian Lewis Schaffer.

I normally try not to quote from people’s stage acts but, occasionally, Lewis mentions on stage that an Edinburgh Fringe reviewer once called him “mildly racist”.

He says that is the worst of both worlds.

If you are not racist, you do not want to go see a comedian who is mildly racist.

Equally, if you are a racist, you do not want to go see someone who is only mildly racist.

The only solution, Lewis reasons on stage, is that his act should become more racist.

In fact, I do not think Lewis is remotely racist on or off stage. He can be xenophobic on stage, but that is perhaps a sign that he has ‘gone native’ after too many years living in Britain.

On stage, like Jerry Sadowitz, he hates everyone and everything equally.

Misanthropy is his schtick.

I vaguely know another ‘white’ comedian who often plays ‘black’ clubs. I will not name the comedian because of what follows in this blog, but the comedian has talked to me of how he/she can tell jokes about black culture to highly appreciative black audiences. But he/she cannot tell the same jokes to white audiences because the jokes would be seen as appallingly racist.

To black audiences, they are not racist; they are just very funny observational racial jokes.

Interestingly, about ten years ago, Lewis Schaffer had a conversation with Bernard Manning, though they never met.

“It was around 2002,” Lewis tells me. “I’d been in the country for such a short time, it was all a blur to me. I was at the ITN building on Gray’s Inn Road in London and Bernard Manning was in Manchester and they were asking us about offensiveness in comedy.

“I said what I always say, which is that I personally think you should only tell a joke about any ethnic group if you can tell it to their face and they will laugh AND you can tell it when they’re not around and people who are not of that group will not find it offensive.

“Bad comedians are the ones who can tell a joke only when the people they’re making fun of are not in the room – Welsh people are not here. Let’s insult them. 

“That’s bad comedy. Well, not bad. But not the best.

“Good comics can insult you to your face.”

I certainly agree with that. I saw a show at Bernard Manning’s Embassy Club in Manchester in the early 1980s when there was a black couple near the front of the audience. Manning, of course, zeroed in on them as the butt of his jokes and they genuinely loved it. At the end of the show, they were beaming with happiness and excitement; he had made their night.

Another time, there was a honeymoon couple in the audience who foolishly admitted to Manning that they were a honeymoon couple. What they were thinking about, I cannot begin to imagine. He, of course, did every honeymoon and sex gag he could think of throughout the show. Again, they loved it, loved being the centre of attention, loved him (as it were) giving them a hard time.

So I agree with Lewis Schaffer that a good comic can tell racial jokes to people’s faces. A bad comic can only tell those jokes when the relevant people are out of the room.

“But,” says Lewis, “there is another step. A good comic can tell a racial joke to people of that racial group and make them laugh AND he can tell the same joke to people who are not of that ethnic group and make them laugh. If you can’t tell the joke and get laughs when there are no people of that racial group there, then you shouldn’t tell the joke. You should not tell the joke because it will make the audience feel uncomfortable.”

I am not sure I go along with Lewis on this.

If you can tell a black racial joke to black people and they do not find it offensive – if they find it funny – then the joke is not racist, it is racial. If white people find the joke racist, then I think the problem lies in the people not in the joke.

Lewis tells me: “Just because black people are laughing, doesn’t mean you’re allowed to make the racial joke. It doesn’t mean you can tell that joke to an audience of white people. It doesn’t mean you’re going to get a laugh from it. It doesn’t mean they’re not going to hate you.

“If Bernard Manning could tell his jokes to black people who laughed at them, then the jokes were not racist. But that doesn’t mean he could tell them to white people and not be perceived as being racist. So maybe that’s the problem Bernard Manning had and has: that he was and is perceived as being racist. I’m just saying that. I don’t know.

“I said that on the radio and Bernard Manning – I don’t know how he knew this, but he – brilliantly – said, You are going to die skint.

“It was the first time I had ever heard the word ‘skint’ and what he said is totally true.

“Bernard Manning knew he offended people, but he didn’t care, because that’s where the money was in his world.

“With me, I actually care about people’s feelings and that’s not good for business.”

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At the Edinburgh Fringe, Paco Erhard is a German comic, not a comic German

(A version of this blog was published in the November 2011 edition of Mensa Magazine)

Paco Erhard is performing a comedy show at the Edinburgh Fringe called 5-Step Guide to Being German. We drank English breakfast tea at Fringe Central this week.

“There is an English obsession with Germany,” he told me, “but I think it’s getting less and less. It’s more or less the media who keep it going.”

When I met him, he had just got his first review for his show – a 4-star review – but, the previous day, he told me his show had not been successful –

“I didn’t do as well as I could.

“I am a German. Germany has got an inferiority/superiority complex. We basically have this feeling that nobody likes us and we have to stick together but we are better than everybody thinks we are. So, out of that inferiority complex comes a feeling of superiority and we have had that for too long. Germany has to change.

“As a kid, you don’t know what or who you are,” he told me. “Germany is a baby nation. Our country was just pieced together in 1871 and we don’t know who we are.

“The English are like the Germans. They no longer know who they are – the British Empire has gone; they can’t define who they are. The Scots are like the Bavarians. The Scots know very well who they are, what their traditions are and I would love Scottish-type patriotism for Germany. It’s a positive, very inviting patriotism.

“I like Scotland. I like America – I like how positive they are.

“I studied Literature and Philosophy at the German equivalent of the Open University, so I could travel. I lived in America when I was 17 and loved it – North Carolina – very friendly people and I watched lots of stand-up comedy on TV. That is where it started for me. I think it was more or less the year Bill Hicks died.

“I tried to be a writer for a long time but that meant I just stayed in trying to write and never went out meeting people I could write about. I was not quite normal. I got wrapped up in what I wanted the writing to mean rather than just telling a story.

“I did the whole writing thing until I was in Valencia when I saw an ad for a hotel entertainer in Magaluf and thought, Fuck it. That’s what I’m going to do.

“When I was in Majorca, I realised I liked being on stage and met my girlfriend of the time who was British. She had lived in Tenerife and persuaded me to do some compering and comedy there for British audiences there who were not, on average, all that clever. Wonderful people and I really enjoyed compering for them but, whenever I tried my stand-up, if I made any reference to anything that was outside Jordan and The X-Factor, they did not get very much out of it.

“If you add in a lot of racism and a bit of sexism, then you have a good comedy act for Tenerife. And insult people all the time.”

So did he add in racism and sexism?

“Well,” he told me, “I went to borderline things where I thought, I can still live with saying this and feel morally OK with it and not hate myself. But there was some stuff I could never have done with a clean conscience. It was not that terrible, but I would not like doing it for a long period.”

And did he get a lot of stick from predominantly English audiences for being German?

“Oh yeah, plenty! Sometimes I would say to someone in the front row: Don’t worry. Being German is not contagious: it’s not like you’re going to wake up at five in the morning with an incredible urge to invade Poland…

But, often, if I said that, the audience just sat there puzzled because, as my girlfriend explained to me, they had no idea what Poland had to do with anything. These were not 18 year-olds; they were all older people but, to them, the Second World War was just England v Germany and England won 5-1.

“I had lots of material I could never do and so, just over two years ago, I came to London to do ‘proper’ comedy. And, of course, my selling-point in Britain is that I am a German.

“There came a point when I came back from America when I saw my country from the outside for the first time and I started to not want to be German at all. I felt I was German but different. I was born in Munich but moved eight or nine times as a kid, so I saw how various parts of Germany are so different from each other.

“We do have a sense of humour but there’s a much bigger internal division between the different states and between people’s behaviour in public and in private than in any other country I know of. There is the personality you have in private and the face you show to the outside world. In the workplace, there’s no place for humour or screwing around. In private, you can be a completely different person.

“In Germany, there’s a lot you can hate and love at the same time, like the whole order thing. The precision is great, but sometimes you think Just relax. Let go.

“I was at a wedding in Hamburg a few months back – my girlfriend’s friends – and the father of the bride was told I was a comedian and he tensed up. He thought I would go round later making jokes about it and anarchistically destroy everything that he saw as beautiful.

“I think in Germany, there’s a fear of chaos. Humour is great, but it has its place; it is dangerous if there is too much because it might just corrode everything.

“That’s what I love about Britain. Things are more relaxed.

“Here in Britain, I want to be a comedian first and a German second. I do not want to be a comic German. I want German to be the adjective and the noun to be Comic.

A few days after our chat, Paco got a second review for his show – there had been a reviewer in the day before our chat – he had seen the show which Paco knew had not worked well – the show in which, Paco told me, “I didn’t do as well as I could.”

The Broadway Baby reviewer gave Paco Erhard’s 5-Step Guide to Being German a 5-star review.

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The Welsh language is just plain silly and is a clear sign of national insecurity

So, tell me, what is the point of having a blog if you can’t write bigoted pieces based on truth, half-truths and misunderstandings?

For the last couple of days, I have been staying on Cardigan Bay in West Wales.

When you walk in the streets and go into shops in Cardigan – or Aberteifi as it is now pointlessly half-re-named – people are sometimes speaking Welsh not English to each other. It was not until I worked in Ireland that I started to think the propagation of the Welsh language is ridiculously pointless.

If a language is dead, let it die. If it is still alive, it will survive without heavy-handed insistence that it must be used.

What is very relevant to this blog is the fact I am Scottish not English. Remember that my mother’s grandmother did not speak English until, in her late teens I think, she came down from the hills. The image of my grandmother coming down from the hills is one a friend of mine finds peculiarly funny but, anyway, my mother’s grandmother originally spoke Scots Gaelic as her native tongue, not English.

I once spent some time in the Outer Hebrides where I admired and was fascinated by how, in shops, people would speak to each other in sentences that meandered almost randomly between English and Gaelic words and phrases. They used whichever words and phrases came more naturally and fitted better. Sometimes the words were Gaelic, sometimes English; all within the same sentence.

I once had an interview for a job with Grampian Television in Aberdeen which basically transmitted to the Highlands while Scottish Television transmitted to the Lowlands. The conversation came round to starting a number of Gaelic-language programmes transmitted on Grampian (part of ITV) and on BBC Scotland. I said I thought it was silly because such a relatively small percentage of Scottish television viewers – by then almost entirely in the Western Isles with a small smattering in the Highlands – actually spoke Gaelic as their natural tongue.

The Grampian TV executive interviewing me was highly miffed.

“Ah! But you’re English!” he said to me.

“I was born in Campbeltown and partly brought up in Aberdeen,” I told him. “Where were you born?”

“London,” he said.

I did not get the job.

Later, I did a lot of freelance work over many years for HTV in Cardiff – or Caerdydd as it is now pointlessly half-re-named. It’s a bit like re-naming Saigon as Ho Chi Minh City when most of the inhabitants continue to call it Saigon.

As far as I remember, when I started working in South Wales, almost all the local signs were in English. I mean the road signs and the general retail shop signs.

At some point, almost imperceptibly, dual language signs started appearing, usually with the Welsh version first.

At around this time, or maybe a little later, there was an extended period where my full-time freelance work alternated between working for HTV in Cardiff and Tara TV in Dublin.

In Dublin, I could see old, rotting, rusting and ignored street signs in Irish Gaelic. All the current signs were in English. This was the period when the ‘Celtic Tiger‘ was on the rise and the Irish Republic had re-discovered its self-confidence.

It is very relevant that I was once sitting in an edit suite at Windmill Lane Studios in Dublin, directing a trailer for an RTE television programme which included an interview in which someone said a couple of sentences in Irish Gaelic.

“What did he say?” I asked the Irish videotape editor sitting with me.

“No idea,” he told me.

We had three other Irish people come into the suite. None of them knew what the Gaelic words meant. They had all had to ‘learn’ Gaelic at school but, just like British schoolkids who do five years of French at school, they could not speak and could barely understand the language because it was bugger-all use to them in everyday life.

It was at this time – alternating my time sometimes one week here/ one week there/ one week here/ one week there between Cardiff and Dublin – that I began to think the Welsh language was just plain silly.

It was silly because it was a mostly dead language being revived and imposed by a clique on a predominantly non-Welsh-speaking population.

One week, I returned to Cardiff from Dublin to find that the local Tesco store had changed all its signs to dual-language Welsh and English signs. Someone (Welsh) told me in near-disbelief that all the signs at the Tesco store in Abergavenny, where she lived, had also been changed.

“I swear to God, no-one bloody speaks Welsh in Abergavenny!” she told me.

By the time I stopped working at HTV, Lloyds Bank was calling itself Banc Lloyds (it has since re-re-branded itself simply as Lloyds TSB) and other shops and businesses were doing the same: making up their own names in Welsh. Mostly, I suspect, they were English companies trying to be politically correct and liberal, much like that English executive at Grampian TV trying to be so ‘right-on’.

Shortly before Tesco started changing its signs to dual-language Welsh & English, I had been on holiday to Cambodia and, in Phnom Penh, there was a street of hovels and shacks which were all English language ‘schools’. At that time, no-one had any money and there was a very real possibility that the homicidally extreme Khmer Rouge might regain power in the next month or two. But, as in almost all other parts of the world, people wanted to learn English because it was and is the ‘international’ language. If you are an outward-looking country with outward-looking thoughts, you learn English.

My understanding is that, after most of Ireland gained independence from Britain in the early 1920s (let us not get into any pedantic details of dates in Ireland: it will all end in many tears and much wailing), the republicans who ran the country wanted to encourage self-confidence and national pride.

So they called the new country Eire instead of Ireland, painted the red pillar boxes green, changed a few of the royal crests on stone buildings to harps and tried to get everyone to speak Gaelic. The country rotted in inward-looking isolation for decades, admittedly not helped by the fact successive UK governments had every reason to dislike American-born Eamon de Valera and his blindly Brit-hating chums.

But, by the time I worked in Dublin in the mid and late 1990s, the Irish Republic had regained its self-confidence and, although civil servants had to know Gaelic, the English language had taken over all everyday usage except in the extreme west of the country. The few Irish language signs in Dublin were faded and/or rusting.

Irish, like Scots Gaelic, was then and is now effectively a dead language naturally spoken by few people. Though long may they speak Gaelic in Ireland and Scotland. I have nothing against the natural rise and fall of any – indeed, all – languages.

But I am told by Welsh friends that, except in the West and sparsely-populated central highlands of Wales, the Welsh language had pretty-much died out by the late 19th century.

It was re-imposed rather than re-grew in Wales in the late 20th century.

My memory is that extreme Welsh nationalists got publicity in English newspapers by setting off some minor explosions and burning down occasional second homes owned by ordinary English people in Wales.

Then some second-rate people who could not get jobs in media, politics and the local civil service had the bright idea of looking to what their USP was – they could speak Welsh – and they pushed for Welsh-language TV programmes, an entire Welsh TV channel and the use of the Welsh language in the local civil service because, that way, they would have a positive advantage in getting jobs.

The Welsh language was, to an extent, partially revived not by natural growth and usage but by xenophobia and the self-interest of a small clique.

Yes, that’s a very personal view of what happened, but not necessarily totally untrue.

English politicians, frightened of alienating the Welsh, went along with it for electoral gain and you now have a country where people have a TV channel –  S4C – which most of them don’t understand and dual-language signs only half of which most understand – the English language half.

While the rest of the world was moving towards internationally-understood English, a group of self-serving xenophobes in Wales (where English was already established) were pushing for the renewed use of a mostly-dead language known only by some in Wales and nowhere else except some obscure area of Patagonia.

Looking inwards in an increasingly international world is not a good idea. An insistence on trying to spread the Welsh language more widely in Wales is not a sign of national identity. It is a sign of national insecurity.

Right or wrong, that’s my viewpoint. Like I said at the start, What is the point of having a blog if you can’t write bigoted pieces based on truth, half-truths and misunderstandings?

Oh – Abergavenny has now been pointlessly half-re-named Y Fenni.

Really! Give me a break, chaps or – as Google Translate claims that would be said in Welsh – yn rhoi i mi egwyl, chaps.

What sort of sensible language doesn’t have a word for “chaps”?

Dim sense.

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Scots wha hae an aggressive voice and Scots wha dinnae – Rab C Nesbitt versus Gordon Jackson

A few years ago, a Liverpudlian friend of mine who is of Indian descent (by which I mean to explain she has a gentle voice) went to Glasgow for the first time.

When she came back, she told me: “At first, I couldn’t understand why everyone I met was so angry and why they were all so angry with each other. Then, after about forty minutes, I realised it was just their Glasgow accents.”

That was no joke. She genuinely was initially confused.

It came to mind today when I heard Glasgow comedienne Janey Godley discussing Scottish football managers on both BBC Radio 4’s Today programme and on BBC World Service’s lunchtime Newshour. (There are now seven Glasgow-born managers of English Premier League teams.)

“There’s something that’s come through so much today,” Janey said in the Newshour interview, “and it’s that a Scottish accent equals aggression. It’s something that people like me have had to fight for a long time. People don’t say I’m a strong comic; I’m called a tough, aggressive comic because of my accent. But our accent isn’t always synonymous with aggression.”

Janey puts the “don’t mess with us” accent down to “gritty Celtic upbringing” in Glasgow.

But the bizarre other side of the coin is that British telephone call centres are often based in the lowlands of Scotland because a Scottish accent is also found by English people to be comforting and honest.

I am old enough to remember when this started and it was specifically to do with soft-toned Glasgow-born actor Gordon Jackson who, in the early 1970s, appeared in the high-rating ITV series Upstairs, Downstairs as calm, reassuring and authoritative butler Mr Hudson.

To cash in on his TV image, a financial services company had him voice their TV commercials and their business rocketed. He – and other Scots ‘voices’ – became much in demand for financial ads. One bonus was that, unless the words were rasped out in a clearly scummy Rab C Nesbitt type accent, the English were unable to socially place any Scottish accent: they could not label the accent as belonging to any particular ‘class’ or any particular area… the accent was just “Scottish” and came with images of financial probity and Mr Hudson style trustworthiness.

Cliche images, of course, are a fascinating area of illogicality. as with Rab C Nesbitt AND Mr Gordon Jackson both being the epitome of cliche Scottishness.

The Scots have an unusual dichotomy of cliche images. They are seen as both drunken petty criminals and morally-strict Calvinists… as both penniless jack-the-lads and dead-honest people canny with their money.

Perhaps Sir Alex Ferguson of Manchester United lies sandwiched somewhere between Rab C Nesbitt and Gordon Jackson.

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