Monday, 25 February 2008

Vladimir McTavish, Joe Heenan, Padraig Hyland, Jack Whitehall, compere Susan Morrison – The Stand, Edinburgh, 22/02/2008

One of the impressive things about The Stand is that they don’t merely put on good comedy nights, they also work hard to develop the local comedy scene. It’s an important service in an industry which is so focussed on London that comics in other parts of the country can often be isolated and find it difficult to get exposure. This night featured three comics who had come through the ranks to become regulars at the club, and have been able to use that as a springboard to bookings nationwide.

Fast talking Glaswegian Susan Morrison is a regular MC at the club, and it’s a role she has learned to fill superbly well. On this night, with the entire front row occupied by a stag party, she had plenty of material to work with, and unlike some comperes she doesn’t pussyfoot around but jumps straight in with both feet. Brash, brassy and bottle-blonde may just be the perfect combination for a female host, her patter is bold and innuendo-laden but she never loses control of her audience.

The importance of a good MC is highlighted when one of the acts is below par, and I’m going to give Padraig Hyland the benefit of the doubt here, he has a good reputation and has reached a certain level of success but he would probably be the first to admit that his performance on this night was not good. It didn’t help that a heckle within the first minute provided a punchline to a joke that was funnier than the one Hyland himself eventually produced. He never seemed to recover from that moment and, despite a good line here or there, for most of his set he seemed to be struggling to remember his lines and frequently losing his thread, and some parts of his set were notable only for an embarrassed silence.

No such problems for Jack Whitehall however. The standard setup for a weekend night at The Stand sees a headliner, two established comics and someone new, young and fairly unknown in the ten minute try out spot. It is rare that the occupant of that ten minute spot turns out to be the best act of the night. I don’t think I’d be sticking my neck out very far in predicting that within a few years Whitehall will be coming back to headline nights like these. His opening disclaimer about his middle-class upbringing worried me for a moment, when a comic opens with an apology it is often a sign he isn’t confident in his own material. But within a minute all such worries had fallen away as he demonstrated a superb command of the English Language and a talent for brilliant social mimicry.

Joe Heenan has become very much a Stand regular, and the probably the most apt word to apply to him is “dependable.” Very much a blokish comic, he looks and sounds like someone you could enjoy a pint with, and he is adept at very quickly bringing an audience onto his side. Moreover, you get the impression from watching him that his act is not meticulously planned in advance, rather that he has a wealth of material to draw on and an ability to think fast on his feet and tailor the set to the particular audience he is faced with. Whether the case or not, his was a safe pair of hands to keep the momentum of the night going.

Vladimir McTavish is a brash, straight-talking Glaswegian schemie who is the comic invention of Paul Sneddon, a comedian also responsible for the drunken football pundit Bob Doolally. Originally created to present an alternative Scottish history lesson, McTavish has now become pretty much Sneddon’s main business and he tours extensively under the name. His humour is from the streets, often coarse and presented in an aggressive style. Most of his set is based around the Scottish experience, from Burns suppers to the smoking ban and hatred of the English, and in truth he mainly picks easy targets. It was an entertaining enough end to the night, but maybe slightly disappointing as a headline act having failed to surpass the two acts which preceded him.

Thursday, 21 February 2008

Five Questions: Janey Godley

Welcome to the first in what we hope will become a comprehensive series of posts in which we ask some of the country's top stand-ups about themselves. And our first interviewee in the chair is Janey Godley.

Sometimes described as the female Billy Connolly, Janey is a down-to-earth Glaswegian whose comedy often derives from the streets of her home city. She is also renowned as one of the hardest working people in comedy, two years ago during the Edinburgh Fringe she was performing three full length shows every day. As well as headlining the top comedy clubs up and down the country she is also a bestselling author and a successful playwright and actress. Here's what she had to say in answer to our little quiz.

What made you decide you wanted to be a comedian (and when did you first decide)?

I owned a bar for 15 years and left it in 1994. I only wanted to become a comic to get my Equity card so I could act, but I liked comedy more eventually.

Which other comedians do you most admire/most inspire you?

Jerry Sadowitz performed comedy in my bar , so he was the biggest inspiration to me.

What's been your best gig to date? And your worst?

The best was performing at Glastonbury. The worst was in front of seventeen nuns!

What's the best heckle you've ever received? And how did you respond?

The best heckle was in Oxford when a wee obviously lesbian chick was sitting with 20 male squaddies. I was doing stuff about porn and asked 'Is it just me....or do other women flinch when they watch hard core porn and clench and worry about the pain? She shouted "NO, I love it" and all the men laughed.

I added "Well you weren't really in that demographic as you look like the kind of woman who likes to bang a hammer off her vagina, or lets another woman bang it for her"

She shouted "I am not a lesbian"

I replied " Really? Well you need to know someone has seriously fucked up your hair"

What are you working on at the moment and what does the future hold?

I am on tour at the moment and I also write a weekly column for The Scotsman newspaper. I'm about to go to New Zealand for the comedy festival. Then in April I have a run at the Soho Theatre.

Monday, 18 February 2008

Lemon Custard Comedy Club - Edinburgh, 16/02/2008

Like most artistic media, the world of stand-up is a ladder for the aspiring to climb. At the top there are the theatre tours, and below that the club circuit, chain clubs featuring established acts, independent clubs with a mix and giving opportunities to the up and coming. Then there are the open mic nights for the newcomers. And somewhere in there, there are the underground clubs.

Often run by a comic who acts as host themselves, and featuring their friends or anyone they could talk into coming along to do a set, shoved into whatever venue they could blag for free and run on a budget of tuppence-ha’penny and a packet of juicy fruit, they tend to be informal, sometimes chaotic, and often a lot of fun.

Lemon Custard is the brainchild of Dee Custance, who co-hosts along with Sian Bevan. They make a good pairing. Custance does the “excitable girly-girl” thing, a style that has become popular of late thanks to the success of Josie Long, while Bevan has a more straightforward and grounded style and is the more natural MC of the two and whose "New Year on Calton Hill" story is a highlight of the night. They make their guests feel welcome by handing out lollipops and liquorish allsorts and going round the audience finding out a bit about everyone. This doesn’t take long, the paying public initially numbering ten, although more arrived as the night went on.

Held in the Harlequin Cafe, a little basement organic food eaterie below a bookshop off Buccleugh Street, it was a bizarre location for a comedy night, the room having no real focal point at which to perform, but this helped to create an informal atmosphere where the comics seemed to be more talking with the audience rather than performing for them, and all three of the main acts seemed to cope with the circumstances well.

First up was Austin Low, a spiky haired youngster who has been performing since he was 15. And a very good start it was, Low was a bundle of nervous energy and threw himself into his performance with gusto. Introducing himself as the “Urban Joker,” much of his set was taken up with his campaign to end false advertising, including questioning what exactly is mega about the Megabus, and whether there is any scientifically proven basis for claiming the existence of a Lynx Effect. It was an excellent opening set and left me wanting more, which is always the sign of a good comic.

Following this, the night veered off into the slightly surreal as the audience were invited to participate in a giant game of scrabble, with the slightly altered rule that any word was acceptable, real or not, as long as you could use it in a sentence. As such, between us we managed to enhance the English language with such gems as triangley, zebravem and wankmap, along with my own submission, antifloaty.

Next we had Jim Park, who I had previously seen less than a month ago and was less than impressed with on that occasion. Although understandable, it didn’t really help that his set on this occasion was not merely word for word but pause for pause identical to the previous one. It reinforced my opinion of his set being too calculated, even while he tries to give the impression of a stream of consciousness. It isn’t that I disliked it, just that I found it a little too rigid and structured. That said, however, for the second time I seemed to be in the minority and he went down very well.

Last up was Keir McAllister, who I had also seen recently, and who again performed much of the same material. However, he is a much less rigid, more fluid performer and easily capable of thinking on his feet and adapting his set to the circumstances. As such, although the punchlines were familiar, the setups were often fresh and interesting. And with a headlining spot giving him more time to build his gags rather than rushing from laugh to laugh, and there was also plenty of material I hadn’t heard before including a good routine involving having fun with religious bigots.

Overall it was a strange but fun night, the kind of night that makes you feel a part of, rather than a spectator of, the action. It isn’t a night for the shrinking violet comedy goer, there is no possibility of hiding at the back here, but equally there is no possibility for the performer of hiding behind the stage lights and keeping the audience at a distance. Audience and comic thrust together at close quarters, it makes an interesting dynamic, and a very enjoyable night.

Thursday, 14 February 2008

Mark Olver, Lloyd Langford - Pleasance Cabaret Bar, Edinburgh, 12/02/2008

There are times, standing in front of a packed room when you are taking the audience with you every step of the way, when comedy must surely be one of the best jobs in the world. But there are other times when it must be bloody hard work. Trying to entertain twenty-nine people (I counted) in a room that can hold nearly two hundred would be one of those times.

I couldn’t say for sure why this gig was so poorly attended. It was organised by the Edinburgh University student’s union, but open to outsiders if they knew it was on. That was probably part of the reason, though, because it doesn’t seem to have been advertised outside the university campus at all. I only found it by accident, and on arriving found a poster showing it was somewhere in the middle of a whole series of Tuesday night gigs, many of the earlier ones of which I would have gone to if I had known they were on.

But why more students didn’t attend, I don’t know. It’s a shame, because both of these comics deserved a better audience. They both worked hard, with mixed results, to win over the meagre group that had made the effort to come and see them. And having both travelled a long distance for a couple of midweek shows, they will both probably think long and hard before accepting a similar booking in the future.

Lloyd Langford was affected worst by the lack of attendance. A young Welshman in his early twenties, he’s clearly a talented lad and probably has a decent future ahead of him in the stand-up game. But he doesn’t yet have the experience and stagecraft to be able to cope with a night like this one, and there were times he was very visibly floundering. His performance was very stop-start, and he seemed unable to build up any momentum, and often it seemed more like a free-for-all down the pub chat with a large group of people rather than a comedy show. But for all that, I would like to see him on a proper club night some time, because I think with a decent audience in front of him he has the potential to be very funny indeed.

Mark Olver, on the other hand, while not exactly a “star name” on the circuit, can at least be described as a seasoned pro. His day job, as warm-up man for Deal or No Deal, has taught him how to handle any kind of audience, and he quite quickly adapted his set to the environment rather than trying to force things.

He started the show by making me, personally, feel guilty. This was not his fault, I hasten to add, and he couldn’t have known. But having ascertained that I was not a student, he asked if I had come specifically to see him. I had, as it happened, as it had been recognising his name on the internet listing that made me say, hey, let’s go along. However, he had a show on in the Fringe last year, and I hadn’t gone to that because I had been put off by the rather simpering expression he was wearing on the poster. So when he replied that he was pleased, because hardly anyone ever came specifically to see him, and then explained that it was because of the posters, and because “they have this face on them,” it was a little close to the bone.

This led into a routine about how few people came to see his Fringe show, and how he had given away chocolate biscuits to the audience in the hope that people would tell their friends and it might encourage them to come. “One show I had one of those king size rolls of jaffa cakes,” he said. “It was over-optimistic. A packet of club was more than sufficient.”

This set was also extremely informal, but it was born of experience rather than desperation. His warm-up gig has clearly taught him how to feed off the audience, and he made it feel as if he was confiding his secrets in a small group of close friends rather than playing a show, which worked very well in the circumstances. Furthermore, while many solo Fringe show comics are currently milking the last drops from last year’s shows, Olver is clearly already in the transitional stage, working on new material for the coming year, which led to him frequently referring to a notebook of ideas and asking people what they thought he should do, again working with rather than against the small numbers in the room.

A large part of the set consisted of confiding his ideas for this year’s Fringe show, and if nothing else he has probably ensured that many of those in the room, myself included, will surely attend to see how it worked out. Overall, I came away wishing I had made the effort to see him before. Olver is probably never going to hit the big time, or be anything more than a working comic, but he is highly professional, experienced, and most importantly, he makes you laugh. And what else are you going to be doing on a Tuesday night?

Monday, 11 February 2008

A Tart at Vicar's (DVD review)

During the four years I spent living in Dublin, one of the really great things was that, my flat being just behind the Guinness Brewery, I could leave my front door and within ten minutes stroll I could be at Vicar Street. And the reason that was so great was that Vicar Street was where all the cool kids came to play. The big names, the international megastars, may have stuck to The Point, or the Gaiety, or the Olympia, but if you wanted the proper raw atmosphere of a real gig, Vicar Street was the place to go.

I saw some great acts there over those years. From Tommy Tiernan and Ardal O’Hanlon, to Rich Hall performing as support act for his own Otis Lee Crenshaw, to the brilliant, yet totally unknown outside Ireland, sketch comedy troupe Apres Match. (Twice.) The atmosphere of the place was always fantastic, and as such it is no surprise to me that virtually every live DVD that comes out of the Emerald Isle is filmed there. Andrew Maxwell Live In Dublin is merely the latest in a long and illustrious tradition.

Maxwell is rising very quickly to the top of the comedy tree. From the cult following he has gathered around his Fullmooners late night showcases, to his frequent television appearances on RTE’s The Panel and BBC2’s Mock the Week, as well as regular guest spots on various other panel shows. Clearly the man works like a Trojan, and yet he makes it look effortless. Not only that, but I saw him live twice during the same year in which this DVD was recorded, and yet over those three sets, each an hour or more in length, hardly any of the material was repeated.

One difference with this show, of course, is that he is playing to his home town audience, and as such can occasionally speak in a shorthand that outsiders might not understand. So jokes like “I grew up in Kilbarrack, or as my mum would say, Raheny,” may go over non-Dubliners’ heads. And with jokes about people from Tallaght, the Angelus, watching Nuacht, and a final story revolving around speaking in Gaelic in order to get laid, it is clear that this DVD was very much designed for the Irish market, where his Panel appearances have made him a household name.

But there’s also plenty of material that is universal, including excellent routines about playing a black comedy club in New York, or antagonising Rangers supporters at a Hibernians football match, as well as a lot of material about Edinburgh which made me feel right at home!

The thing that Maxwell does so well is to break down the invisible barrier between audience and performer. Not in a slick “hey, where you from,” audience patter kind of way. But by talking in such a natural, rough and ready style that you could almost imagine that he’s chatting to you over a pint in the pub.

Of course, live DVDs can never take the place of the real thing. But they have their place, especially in the case of big stadium shows where the humour can so often get lost in the wide open spaces that sometimes they are actually funnier in the confines of your own living room. But this is the antithesis of that kind of show. It’s very much a club gig, with no impressive stage set or flashy effects, just a guy with a stool, a microphone and a pint of Guinness.

But then again, so many of the great early comics are lost to us because their best shows were never committed to film. Today’s acts are luckier, their careers are being documented in this way. If you can catch Maxwell live, do so, because he really is one of the best performers still regularly playing the club circuit. But if you can’t, this DVD is pretty good as a “second best” option.

Wednesday, 6 February 2008


High time someone stepped in to lend Alan a hand - he's been running the site single-handedly since setting it up.

So - introductions.

I'm Ben, and you may or (more likely) may not know me from Silent Words Speak Loudest and collaborative blog The Art Of Noise. (I also co-write a football blog, but I'm loathe to direct you there as there's precious little of any amusement there - if you don't count opposition fans laughing at my team's plight, that is...)

As a fan of stand-up who doesn't go to nearly enough gigs, I'm hopeful that my involvement with The Laughter Track might help change things. Nothing on the horizon at the moment, though, sadly, so in the meantime you'll have to put up with other things from me, at least - interviews and reviews from the Silent Words Speak Loudest archives, perhaps the odd DVD review, and, first of all, a long-overdue review of Cynthia True's 'American Scream: The Bill Hicks Story'...

"'Noam Chomsky with dick jokes'"

"Bill Hicks is most known, particularly in America, for being unknown". Thus begins Cynthia True's note at the beginning of her biography of Hicks, 'American Scream'. Not strictly true - at the time of his death, in February 1994, he was a veteran of 'The Late Show With David Letterman' and had been nominated for the American Comedy Award for the third time. But, yes, he certainly wasn't as well known as he might have been, or as he was in the UK.

What DO we come to know about Hicks from True's book?

* That he was a bookish, serious child who secreted himself away in his bedroom writing razor-sharp, Woody Allen influenced one-liners and who then graduated to performing as part of a double act taking parents and teachers for comic fodder.

* That one of the key formative events of the young comic's life was seeing Sam Kinison live. He shared a similar background to the former preacher: "They were operating out of the same middle-American evangelical Christian universe, both wildly enraged by its literal interpretation of the Bible and deeply imprinted by it". Hicks once said of his family as he was growing up: "'We were Yuppie Baptists. We worried about things like, "If you scratch your neighbour's Subaru should you leave a note?"'". Televangelism and the "prosperity theology" espoused by the likes of Jim Bakker subsequently became one of his key targets - an obvious one, you might think, but certainly not an easy subject to get away with in 1980s Texas.

* That Hicks's world-view may have often come across as bleak and cynical, but that he also had a positive, spiritual side to his character that led to a fascination with meditation, mysticism and metaphysical philosophy. For someone who spent so much time satirising and savaging the beliefs of others, he was in some respects a remarkably credulous and open person.

* That, after years living a fastidiously clean life, he suddenly threw himself off the wagon with equal enthusiasm: "Sure you could sit cross-legged and pray for ten hours, but drugs, Bill now realised, were an express lane to transcendence". Cigarettes, booze, mushrooms, ectasy, coke - he embraced the whole smorgasbord of stimulants available to him. Labelling non-smokers "obnoxious self-righteous slugs", he became self-righteous in his pursuit of the classically escapist but ultimately self-destructive lifestyle of the rock 'n' roll star, adopting a new motto: "'Every time I party too hard I remember Keith Richards is still alive'". (I like the image of Hicks faced with a mound of illicit substances and looking at his 'What Would Keith Do?' bracelet...)

* That this had an inevitable impact on his performances, bringing out a side that increasingly set him apart from the pack - he became angrier, less unpredictable, more confrontational, often ironically in the cause of pacifism. Kinison had shown him that the conventional relation between comedian and audience could be warped, bent, shattered. True comments of his interest in Elvis (whom he regularly dressed as): "It was the inexorable thirst for acolytes and fans that fascinated Bill - an interesting fixation for a performer who had no compunction about offending his own audiences".

* That, aside from religion, his most revisted subjects were the Right, government, the media and corporate America, but that he also had a finely honed appreciation of absurdities, such as the Flag Burning Protection Act of 1989: "It wasn't that he personally believed in burning the flag, it was that he couldn't believe the absurdity of putting people in jail for burning the very symbol of freedom that gave them right to burn the flag".

* That people either genuinely didn't know what to do with him, or recognised his genius but then mistakenly believed he might be moulded or pushed in a certain direction. Hicks, though, refused to conform to expectations, eager to pursue his own big ideas and with an unshakeable moral view of his own role and responsibilities: "'To me, the comic is the guy who says "Wait a minute" as the consensus forms. He's the antithesis of the mob mentality'".

* That the infamous canning of his final performance on 'David Letterman', when the pancreatic cancer that was to kill him had already been discovered, was initially a bitter blow but subsequently garnered him even more attention. Even as his body waned, his star was waxing.

So, what of True's book? Well, it suffers from three faults.

Firstly, her reasoning is often facile and glib - see, for instance, passages like this: "Nirvana had just blown up the airwaves with Nevermind, knocking Michael Jackson off 'Billboard's Number One spot the week of 11 January 1992. If Bill's aesthetic wasn't punk, his sensibility was, and if there were a moment for America to embrace his anti-corporate message, it was then".

Secondly, and perhaps inevitably as a book about a near-mythical subject who suffered an untimely death at a young age, it glosses over some of Hicks's less likeable qualities and personal contradictions, even if not really sliding into full-fledged hagiography. Thus his frequently selfish relations with women are only alluded to in passing, while incidents such as his barracking of one heckler with repeated screams of "You fucking cunt!" are narrated without comment. It's hardly the most articulate or quick-witted of responses - just as not all the quoted material radiates with the keen intelligence by which True claims it was informed.

She admits that Hicks wasn't always above playing up to his bad-boy image, but could have made more of the fact that he came to hate being seen in some quarters simply as a foul-mouthed X-rated stand-up. It clearly rankled that he could be regarded in the same terms as someone like Andrew Dice Clay, who had no more noble goal than making people laugh by being as offensive as possible. Hicks didn't want audiences of Clay-loving frat boys baying their appreciation of every swear word (though he did, cynically, appreciate that the PRMC parental advisory sticker slapped on his albums automatically guaranteed more sales) - but at the same time he didn't want to be preaching to the converted, those already aware of his political views, either.

Thirdly, and probably most damagingly, 'American Scream' never seems to go more than skin-deep, reading like what it is - a book written by someone with little or no personal experience of meeting its subject, and pieced together from the reminiscences of those who have. With its subtitle 'The Bill Hicks Story', True arguably attempts to evade prosecution under the Trades Descriptions Act - it is, as that would suggest, essentially a narrative of his life - but as a "biography" (as it's described on the back cover), it's deficient, giving the reader precious little genuine insight into the thoughts and psychology of the man himself.

Link: My review of the Hicks compendium 'Love All The People'

Monday, 4 February 2008

Tim Minchin - Queen's Hall, Edinburgh, 01/02/2008

Photo by Linzy

Musical comedy can be a very hit and miss genre. When it is good, it can be very good indeed. But when it is poor, it can seem interminable. It is also one of the oldest types of comedy, but one which seems to get re-invented for each new generation. A staple of the music hall, performers like Arthur Askey and George Formby are now fondly remembered relics whose acts would do nothing to amuse a modern audience.

Flanders and Swann are the link between that era and modern comedy, taking their songs often to surreal and subversive places and setting a template followed by the likes of Hinge and Bracket, Kit and the Widow and even today by Topping and Butch. But today’s musical comedians more often look to Victoria Wood, who combined musical virtuosity with lyrics that perfectly captured the monotony and mundanity of working-class life.

Wood is a good point of comparison for Tim Minchin. Like her, his songs have their roots in everyday experience. But whereas she often created a character as the focus of her songs, Minchin’s are very much more a personal examination of himself. But what really makes him stand out from the crowd is that he is equally adept when it comes to stand-up and physical comedy as he is when sat behind his piano.

Whether consciously or not, in his goth persona, the wild uncontrollable hair, heavily accentuated eyes and the slightly manic grin that frequently splits his face, he has co-opted the characteristics of the clown. And so, when he takes to the stage to perform an opening number in mime, performing the actions of all of the various members of a rock band with perfect precision, it appeals to what, for most of us, was our very earliest appreciation of humour.

Minchin has come a long way in a short time, and this solo tour appears to be a bit of a retrospective of what has come so far, featuring mostly songs from his previous Dark Side and So Rock shows. Many, like Rock and Roll Nerd or Inflatable You are clever, complex and side-splittingly funny. Others, such as Canvas Bag and Peace Anthem for Palestine are simply silly and fun, while Some People Have It Worse Than Me pushes the boundaries of what is acceptable in a risky and interesting way.

In between, he links the songs with self-deprecating monologues performed in a nervy and highly-strung tone that show that this man doesn’t need to hide behind his musicianship, he is naturally very funny.

It has to be said that the Queen’s Hall, a converted church more usually used as a classical music venue, is probably not the best location for a comedy show. But Minchin is not a conventional comedy performer, and he manages to fill the room with his bright personality and his obvious sense of glee at being able to do what he loves doing before a paying audience. The fact that, despite not exactly being a household name, he is able to sell out venues of this size on a solo tour bodes well for his future. Hopefully it won’t be long before an all-new show comes along, and when it does, I’m going to be in the queue for tickets.