Tuesday, 24 June 2008

George Carlin - The End of an Era

For comedy fans the world over, the death of George Carlin on Sunday, at the age of 71, in Santa Monica, California, severed the last link with a generation of comics who changed the face of comedy forever.

Carlin was one of the greats. There is no doubt about that. His influence on those who followed, from Robin Williams to Jerry Seinfeld to Bill Hicks, is undeniable. What is equally undeniable is that he was unique, one of a kind, and one of the few comedians who remained a vital and original force in comedy right up until his dying day.

Born in New York on May 12th 1937, Carlin was the son of middle-class Roman Catholic parents, of Irish descent. He was raised by his mother after his parents split up, and left school at the age of 14. Joining the US Air Force, he served as a radar technician, but by his own account was seldom out of trouble. While serving, he began to work as a disk jockey on the side, and after his discharge in 1957 he continued in this line of work, taking a job at a radio station in Fort Worth, Texas.

While working for the station he met Jack Burns, and the two became close friends, and later formed a comedy double-act. The comedy was of the traditional style of the time, straightforward gags performed wearing suits for a mostly middle-class or business type audience. They were successful and, quitting the radio station, took the act on the road. Then in 1962, while the pair were performing in Chicago, they went to see another comedian performing locally. This was Lenny Bruce, and as soon as Carlin witnessed Bruce's revolutionary anti-establishment comedy, he knew that the mainstream was no longer for him. Shortly afterwards he and Burns went their separate ways, and Carlin began to develop his act in a less straightforward style. Burns would go on to enjoy a moderately successful career of his own, including becoming the head writer for The Muppet Show.

Through the sixties Carlin developed a style of character comedy, inspired by Bruce and which would later itself prove an inspiration to the young Richard Pryor, both of which men he struck up friendships with. He began to appear regularly on television, most notably on The Ed Sullivan Show and The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, which he also guest hosted. He was present during Bruce's infamous arrest for obscenity, allegedly being arrested himself for refusing to show the police his ID.

In 1970 he changed his act again, and it would lead to his own arrest and obscenity charge two years later. Growing his hair long and in a pony tail, with a matching beard, and dressing all in black, Carlin began to perform political anti-establishment material, including routines in which he openly admitted drug use. But it was his "seven words you can never say on television" routine which resulted in his brief incarceration. He was arrested in Milwaukee on July 21st 1972, but the charge was dropped later that year after a judge ruled that the words had been indecent but not obscene.

The seven words later led to a change in the US law, an fact that Carlin declared himself proud of. When a New York radio station broadcast a recording of the routine in 1973, a complaint by a listener that his son had heard the words led to a five year court battle which ended up in the Supreme Court, and resulted in the creation of a 10pm watershed for the American media, before which no material unsuitable for children was to be broadcast.

In 1975, Carlin was the guest host for the first ever episode of the legendary US late night comedy show Saturday Night Live, and in 1977 he recorded the first of his 14 HBO comedy special shows which would elevate his status in the US to that of a household name. It was around this time, unknown to the public, that he also suffered his first heart attack.

Carlin continued to perform edgy and daring comedy, his constant themes being criticism of the US government and puncturing the pomposity of the establishment, as well as mocking established religion and forming one of his own, frisbeetarianism, the belief of which was that when a person died, his soul got slung on the roof and had to stay there. In the late '80s he found a new young audience through his performances as Rufus, the time travelling mentor of the titular characters in Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure and it's sequel. He also, rather more bizarrely, provided the narration for the American releases of the Thomas the Tank Engine television series.

In 2003 he was at the centre of controversy again, after being fired by the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas for telling his audience that everyone who visited Las Vegas were "fucking morons" and of "limited intellect" and on being challenged by the audience told them to "blow me."

In early 2006 he suffered his second heart attack, and later that year increased his popularity again when he appeared as the voice of Fillmore, the hippie Volkswagon minibus in the Disney/Pixar movie Cars. He carried on performing right up to his death, his last performance being in Las Vegas, the city he hated so much, on June 15th. Three days later it was announced that he would be the recipient of this year's Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, a prestigious award whose previous honourees include Richard Pryor, Bob Newhart and Steve Martin. The award ceremony in November is set to go ahead, when he will become the first ever posthumous recipient.

On Sunday afternoon he was admitted to hospital complaining of chest pains. It was his third and final heart attack, and he died at 5.55pm local time.

Carlin will be remembered not just for his own long and frequently brilliant career, but for the generations of comedians worldwide who have drawn inspiration from him. In a tribute this week, Jerry Seinfeld spoke of how, no matter what idea you might come up with, someone would always tell you "Carlin did it first." I will leave the final words to his daughter, Kelly Carlin:

"Most people know George Carlin as an icon of comedy and an advocate of free speech. I just know him as Dad … and what a dad he was. He taught me the value of speaking the truth in a world that doesn't always want to hear it and gave me the gift of laughter. He was loved and revered by so many and will be missed beyond words — but never forgotten."

Thursday, 19 June 2008

Jason Rouse, Gary Delaney, Vince Fluke, Rab Brown, compere Lucy Porter - The Stand, Edinburgh, 05/06/2008

Some comedy nights are a little strange. On this particular night, I found myself seeing a bill of comedians none of whom I was at all familiar with or knew what to expect from, aside from the main draw, being the MC, Lucy Porter, one of my favourite comics whose last four Edinburgh shows I have attended and very much enjoyed but who I had never seen plying her trade as a club comedian before.

In fact she makes a perfect host, her big personality which belies her somewhat diminutive stature filling the room and setting up the room perfectly for laughs. It’s a shame then, that few of the acts were able to take advantage of this, but this takes nothing away from Porter who, during the course of the evening, may even have created the beginnings of a beautiful transatlantic romance between a gruff voiced bearded American and a young girl out celebrating her birthday in the front row.

For the opening act, Vince Fluke, I have to be fair and point out that I later learned that he had only been brought in as a very last minute replacement. Sadly, it showed. A personable Canadian, he never seemed to get to grips with the audience, and from the very beginning of his set seemed to be floundering and constantly changing tack trying to find something to hook the attention with. But the result made his set jumpy and disjointed and make very little sense. Further, he seemed to spend an inordinate amount of his time informing people that he was going to be working at the T in the Park festival, without saying anything particularly funny about it, as if it was going to cause a ripple of recognition, something that was never going to happen in front of a crowd most of whom were either too old or too English to know what it was.

Glaswegian Rab Brown came next, and as the “newcomer” act of the evening, was the one performer who really shone. Taking his chance well, he performed a set of not necessarily very original material, but his take on hen parties, homosexual flirting and his own lack of attractiveness was at least different enough to be memorable, and fulfilled the main objective of being really very funny.

Next up was Gary Delaney, something of an old fashioned gagsmith whose set consisted almost entirely of a series of one-liners and puns. An accomplished writer as well as a comedian, whose jokes can often be heard coming out of the mouths of established TV acts, including Basil Brush, Delaney has a number of excellent gags which soon have the audience on his side. But twenty minutes is a long time to be firing out one pun after another, and to be honest the set could have done with more variety. By about half way through the whole thing felt a bit overloaded, and the audience were becoming noticeably quieter. However, an excellent final few minutes won them back over in the end.

And then came Jason Rouse, another Canadian act, and it’s difficult to know what to say here. Leather clad, tattoo covered and dripping with metal accoutrements from countless piercings and the lining of his teeth, Rouse is a comedian whose main objective is to offend. He sets about this from the word go, reading the mood and the demeanour of the audience and almost resolutely setting himself up in opposition to it. There is little by way of actual humour in his act, rather it consists of a series of statements each designed to push the audience to the limits of their tolerance.

This, in itself, is not a bad thing. There are a number of acts who rely on the same concept, and some of them pull it off very expertly indeed. Rouse, sadly, does not appear to be one of them. There is nothing wrong with being offensive, and it is good when comedy can challenge, but it seems to me that this kind of material should either be leading towards a point, or if not then should at least be very very funny. Rouse’s material was neither. And so relentless was he in piling one sick and twisted image onto another and another, that within not too many minutes, it had even lost the power to shock, simply becoming mundane and, difficult though it is to see how this is possible with subject matter including rape, incest, paedophilia and taking sexual advantage of the mentally impaired, quite frankly boring.

Saturday, 7 June 2008

Daniel Kitson - The Impotent Fury of the Privileged - The Stand, Edinburgh, 20/05/2008

Two years ago, when Channel 4 broadcast their list of the hundred greatest stand-ups, voted for by the public, a good many of those watching were probably surprised when a strange little bearded man named Daniel Kitson popped up at number 27, higher than the likes of Bob Monkhouse, Lenny Henry and Graham Norton. Even Channel 4 were probably surprised, the only clip they could find to show was a some poorly shot hand held video footage of the man at an improbably young age.

Kitson has always been something of an oddity in the comedy world, a prodigy who set out at the age of 16 with the ambition to be the best comedian in the world. Not necessarily the most famous, just the best. Whether he has succeeded or not is a matter of taste, but the fact that, despite steering a course which has not included television exposure or the endless rounds of comedy panel shows, his two nights at The Stand were sold out a month in advance, demonstrates how firmly his reputation has rooted itself among the comedy literate.

In recent years Kitson has been moving away from pure comedy towards shows which are scripted monologues, a cross between traditional stand-up and theatre. This show doesn’t quite straddle that line to the same extent as his last few, it remains Kitson talking to his audience rather than going into character, but nonetheless it is a rigidly structured piece focussed around a single idea, which is remarkable for its length.

All told, Kitson is on stage for a little over two hours, although the show itself, as he describes it, takes up one and three quarters of that, the remainder being a warm up and introduction, part explanation of what he is trying to do, part general comedy, and a small part involving a quite devastating put-down of an audience heckler which shows that, whatever else might have changed along the way, he’s still got the goods to deliver.

The show itself revolves around an incident which occurred on the night before Kitson moved out of his flat, a quite slight tale but one which takes on greater and greater significance as he takes diversion after diversion, examining the implications of the incident from every angle and with each revelation leading to the next dilemma. Along the way he takes us through a thorough exploration of the morality of the modern world, and the idea that we all want our world to be a better place but none of us are prepared to do what it takes to bring it about while being critical of others for failures no worse than our own.

And if all that sounds extraordinarily heavy for a comedy show, it is. But in Kitson’s capable hands it is also extremely funny. Delivered at almost inhuman pace, no line of inquiry is left unfollowed, no thought unexplored, and every word is carefully selected and relished until the result becomes almost comedic poetry, floating over an audience who have to work almost as hard as the performer just to take it all in.

And therein lies the one problem with this show. Because two hours without a break is a long time for any comedy audience to concentrate, without the level of complexity and intensity that Kitson brings to the table, and the result is that there are times during the show that you find yourself tuning out and just letting the words wash over you for a while before girding your loins to dive back in.

So while this show is undoubtedly a remarkable achievement, there is such a thing as being too damned clever for your own good, and this probably steps a little too far across that line. Regardless, whatever the shortcomings, Kitson in full flow is a sight to behold, and in the end he only solidifies his reputation and delivers some of the most thought-provoking material you will ever hear while laughing. Overlong and often overcomplicated it may be, but every other comedian in the country would kill to be this good.

Sunday, 1 June 2008

Richard Herring, Neil McFarlane, Keith Farnan, Gordon Alexander, compere Susan Calman - The Stand, Edinburgh, 25/04/2008

One of the problems that The Stand encounters as a comedy club is that as the Edinburgh Fringe draws ever closer, so the bigger names on the circuit start to be reluctant to play the city. As such, to pull in one of the biggest names of all at the end of April is quite a coup, and reflected in the bustling house.

Diminuitive Glaswegian Susan Calman is in charge of proceedings for the night, and to my mind she is fast becoming the best MC on the Scottish scene. She has everything you want in a compere, a fast mind, a cutting wit, and a seemingly genuine interest in her targets. She knows when to attack and when to hold back, and how to keep control of the punters who want to take things a bit too far, as well as an innate ability to take anything thrown at her and seamlessly find the right bit of material to suit the moment.

Opening act Keith Farnan set the pace of the evening well. A laid back Irishman from county Cork, he has that easy Irish charm that benefits so many comics from the Emerald Isle. His comedy is very much performed with a wink and a grin, drawing the audience in with a warmth of delivery and a conversational style. And although much of his material is not exactly ground-breaking, mostly revolving around “look at us Irish, aren’t we eejits, we can take anything and make it Irish,” it is nonetheless extremely funny, and as such does the job it sets out to do.

Gordon Alexander is a very blokish comic. Hailing from the north of England but now resident in Scotland, he has been slowly making a name for himself on the local scene. Standing six feet six and with a shaven head, he looks quite a scary sort, but his delivery is quite matey. Unfortunately, although this performance shows promise, his material is not really strong enough for this sort of level and routines which include saying stupid things to the Bullseye Bully’s Prize Board tune, while quite amusing, don’t seem to go anywhere.

Neil McFarlane is another local comic, but one who is starting to move out onto the national scene. Like Farnan, much of his material is based in the experience of being Scottish, and routines revolve around annoying Edinburgh tourists, his middle-class Scottish upbringing, and his years spent working in the BBC Glasgow complaints department. He’s an experienced and polished act, and one who can draw his audience in with his relaxed and often seemingly random style.

Finally we came to Richard Herring, and this was an interesting experience for me, because while I have seen him performing countless times in his own shows, I wasn’t quite sure how he would fit in the more pressured environment of a club night, in front of an audience many of whom had come out for a night of good laughs rather than because of who was on the bill. Herring can be an acquired taste, with his penchant for pedantry, and for often drawing out a gag at excruciating length to the point at which he courts losing his audience altogether.

And the answer, to be honest, was that I’m not sure that he did fit very well. Most of the material for the night was drawn from last year’s Fringe show, and while he started well with some snappy deconstructions of common mottos, when he moved into a lengthy dissection of the slogan on a tee-shirt, which proceeded to form the bulk of the set, I could see he was starting to lose certain sections of the audience who were wishing he would move on and not keep hammering the same topic over and over.

Herring is the first to admit that, despite two decades of stage experience, much of it was spent in the “rehearsed show” format, and he came to pure stand-up late in the day and as such is still learning. His name on the bill, of course, is always going to be a draw, and for a comedy literate crowd the brilliance of his wordplay is a sheer delight. But I think he needs still to learn to judge his crowd and tailor his material to the night. He’s a class act, and no denying it, but for me, on this night, there was just something missing.