Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Nice and spicy


Would the cavernous Regal have been booked for Lee's new stand-up show - If You Prefer A Milder Comedian, Please Ask For One - on the strength of his BBC2 series Stewart Lee's Comedy Vehicle, perchance? I rather think it would.

It being a late November evening, the auditorium isn't exactly warm, and it's an equally cool response that greets support act Tony Law. You sense he's already lost people when he begins by pondering why it only seems to be wolves who raise abandoned children ("Why is it that no other animals step up to the plate?"), and the acoustics and frequent accent switching don't help his cause.

For a comic widely renowned for having a dazzlingly offbeat mind, his material strays surprisingly (and disappointingly, for my liking) close to the sort you might be subjected to on a work night out at Jongleurs - the cheap mockery of South Africans and didjeridoo-playing trustafarian students, an expression of bafflement at the experience of eating in Nandos.

But there are flashes of something more interesting - the whirling surrealism of the segment about his penchant for tapping goats and griffins, for starters - and when he says he loves playing with Lee because he attracts all the town's liberals and that "We had all 580 of them in Portsmouth" I know what he means (as well as knowing at least two of said south coast liberals).

Ignore Stewart Lee's sardonic comments about the success of his Comedy Vehicle. That's just part of the self-deprecating comic persona which has this new show advertised on his website with a critic's comment "His whole tone is one of complete, smug condescension" and which sees him arrive onstage to flashing lights and loud intro music ("the entrance for a younger man") before starting off by talking about a visit to Caffe Nero. Despite professions to the contrary, there's no doubt that his long-awaited return to what he's referred to as the "idiot lantern" gave him exposure to a wider audience (while also probably helping some put a face to the much reviled name of the man behind Jerry Springer: The Opera).

If You Prefer A Milder Comedian, Please Ask For One - no doubt many people's introduction to the live Lee experience - is classically constructed. From humble beginnings (the mundanity of that trip to Caffe Nero, fodder for the unimaginative observational comic), the show spirals smartly through a sequence of routines - reflections on what the phrase "quality of life" really means and the desirability of "visible otters" when buying a house; ruminations on Frankie Boyle's claim that comedians lose their anger and edge once they hit 40 (a claim to which Lee naturally gives the lie) - before climaxing not once but twice.

Much has been made of the most notorious segment of the show, an extended anti-Top Gear rant which finds Lee imagining in absurdly graphic detail Richard Hammond's death in that car crash and which has had the Daily Mail predictably fleck-mouthed in response. As ever, though, he's not being gratuitously offensive for its own sake (unlike, say, Boyle or Jimmy Carr), but rather making a forceful point about the show's hypocritical justification of its crassness as a supposedly noble assault on "political correctness gone mad". And his suggestion that Hammond's survivor's story On The Edge should have been published by BBC World rather than Weidenfeld & Nicolson because the license-payer funded the crash and so should reap the financial rewards is one of the show's most brilliantly acid observations.

As I've said on this site many times before, Lee's particular comic modus operandi is to lay bare the art of construction, offering not so much a running commentary on what he's doing as a guided tour of the backstage - pulleys, levers, trapdoors and all. In a recent Guardian piece previewing the show's six-week run at the Leicester Square theatre, Sean O'Hagan astutely described one routine from 2007's 41st Best Stand-Up Comedian Ever! as a "tightrope walk" - but that could apply equally to either of this show's climaxes.

First he takes a simple ad slogan and - through characteristic single-mindedness and relentlessness and a compulsion to break all the "rules" of stand-up (staying silent, dropping the microphone to the floor, leaving the stage, relying on nothing but his own projected voice in an aircraft hangar of a venue) - crafts a devastating (and devastatingly funny, it should be noted) assault on the misappropriation of art, culture and language.

And then, to illustrate his point that the "last taboo" in stand-up isn't jokes about this or that subject but "doing something sincerely and well", he sets out to reclaim Steve Earle's 'Galway Girl' from the ad men by delivering his own performance of the song. With Lee there's always the feeling of being dragged out of the cosy comfort zone, but now the sense of awkwardness is palpable, the tightrope frayed thinner and the weight of expectation of disaster possibly heavier than ever before. But he makes it to the other side - and in some style - and we rise in unison to applaud.

A milder comedian? No thanks - Stewart Lee'll do just nicely.

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Regents Park Open Air Theatre: Daniel Kitson - Stories for the Starlit sky 30/08/09

Leaving this show had a feeling of bonfire night about it: lots of people wrapped up warm all walking together in the dark and quiet night away from a single area.

There is something very different about open air theatre, and more so when the show doesn't start until midnight. There's immediately a feeling of this being something special, something out of the ordinary. And that was definitely the case with this show by Daniel Kitson and Gavin Osborn in the middle of Regent's Park at the Open Air Theatre... the third and final in a series of late night story and song. As a venue the open air space provided a perfect backdrop for stories set at midnight, perfectly complimenting the mood that Gavin and Daniel set.

Daniel Kitson may not be widely known among the general public, but as a winner of numerous awards over the years, he is well known among comedy fans and comedians alike. He is a comic craftsman, with a fantastic way with words and the relationship between him and Gavin works perfectly.

The story that he told during Saturday's show was a story within a story, a tale of the relationship between a father and son intermingled with a story about a town where retired assassins live out their days drinking tea and playing the clarinet. And in between you have Gavin's songs, each one painting a beautiful snapshot of people and relationships and times and places.

If I were giving shows ratings, this one would definitely get 5 stars.

Monday, 24 August 2009

The Hob - Chambers & Nettleton, Glazz Campbell and Andrew Bird 22/08/09

I've been to The Hob quite a few times now, and it makes for a very good night out. Opposite Forest Hill station, the downstairs pub is nice and friendly, and the upstairs comedy venue (with its own bar, an important fact) is great for any type of comedy that you fancy seeing.

Saturday was the first time to the hob since starting to work through my list. The evening kicked off with a realy good set by Chambers & Nettleton. I'm not entirely sure how the describe this duo of feisty northern women, but I thoroughly enjoyed their slightly mental banter and I do love it when you can see that the acts are enjoying themselves too... I think that really helps with the feel of the gig.

Next act up was a newcomer going by the name of Taff. He only did a short set, perhaps about 5 minutes, but it showed good promise. And you can definitely see what he means when he describes himself as Marty Feldman's Afghani cousin. Taff was followed by Glazz Campbell who had a bit of a hesitant start before getting into his stride and enjoying some good (read bad) puns.

Headlining the evening was Andrew Bird. And for some reason, I'm having a bit of a blank mind as to what he was actually like...but I did laugh a lot.

MCing the whole shebang was Mark Felgate, who did the job very well... working with a small audience he was forced to pick on a few audience members repeatedly, but did this in a way that didn't feel intimidating at all. He also through in a few clever little ventriloquism moments that worked well and I would be really interested in seeing him do a proper set.

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

Downstairs at the King's Head - Barry Cryer & Ronnie Golden

I've recently developed a plan to visit all London comedy venues and this kicked off yesterday, taking us out to the deepest darkest reaches of North London - Hornsey in fact to Downstairs at the King's Head. We knew we had definitely reached the right venue when we walked in and saw Barry Cryer and Ronnie Golden sat at a table together, discussing set lists.

The King's Head is quite a nice pub (and makes a good fish finger sandwich) and the comedy venue itself, as you would guess from the title, is downstairs. Quite an intimate venue, and I would recommend getting there when the doors open to ensure good seats (we were sat right at the front, and it was marvellous).

For those who don't know, Barry and Ronnie often get together to do a comedy show based on a combination of funny songs, Barry's marvellous collection of jokes and Ronnie's infinitely malleable voice. The end result is something absolutely hillarious and I thoroughly recommend it to anyone ... they're heading up to the Fringe shortly, if you are there make them a must (they're on at the Gilded Balloon).

Yesterday's set, a preview for the Fringe, was a good combination of old favourite songs (such as Stannah Stairlift and Peace and Quiet) and newer material as well. It was actually a rescheduled gig, Barry having been ill for the previous planned date but that didn't slow him down at all ("But then," he tells us, "I'm a gynecologist told me so"). The songs are hillarious, and their interaction between Barry & Ronnie is marvellous. And watch out for Ronnie's yodelling.

If you can't make it to see them, spend a tenner and get the album (Rock and Droll), it's worth every penny.

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

A comedy lesson


It being March, Richard Herring is living the curious double life of the professional stand-up. By day hard at work on his show for this year's Edinburgh Festival, Hitler Moustache, by night he's still touring last year's show The Headmaster's Son for those who didn't get to see it at the Underbelly in August.

The show was conceived when he suddenly realised the considerable comic mileage he could get from the fact that in his formative years his dad was also his headmaster. Herring has always been a stand-up who scours his own life, both past and present, for self-deprecating material, so - as he admits - it's surprising the idea hadn't occurred to him before.

The focus on nature vs nurture - would he have become the person (the comedian?) he is today if his father and headmaster hadn't been one and the same person? - means that, as he notes in the programme, the show isn't simply "an excuse to do a lot of nostalgic 'Who remembers Spangles?' style material": "Though it is an admirable skill to be able to remind people about things from childhood that they thought they'd forgotten, but that they haven't actually forgotten, it's not something I want to do ... Peter Kay's position in the comic firmament is secure"...

After an initial flight of fancy inspired by mention of Ascension Day, during which we're encouraged to imagine Jesus flying off to heaven with smoke billowing out of his holy anus writing messages in the sky, Herring gets stuck into his subject matter: the boy who, with his briefcase, trumpet and family connections, couldn't have been much more of a magnet for bullies.

Characteristically, bad taste humour is never far from the surface: at one point he compares himself enviously to Elizabeth Fritzl, who at least has a fucked-up childhood as an excuse for any socially inappropriate behaviour, and later refers in passing to Jade Goody as "a candle in the wind - a racist, blowjob-under-the-duvet-giving candle in the wind". When, recalling his teenage embarrassment at having small hands, he elaborates a scheme by which they could be put to public use wanking off paedophiles, we respond with a round of applause that he notes we'll struggle to explain to anyone who isn't at the show (believe me, it was brilliant).

Sex is a recurring theme, Herring openly admitting to an obsession that has persisted into his 40s. He confesses that his sexual awakening came at an early age with the groping scene in Un Chien Andalou, which explains a lot, and that as a hormone-fuelled teenager, he tried spying on his older sister's friend. His diary of the period reveals much the same story: masturbatory habits meticulously recorded for posterity and a pretentiously straight-faced review of the not one but two porn films with which he and his friends welcomed in one new year: "Poorly edited, with any excuse for sex taken up".

The diary is a rich source of laughs, Herring delighting in mocking the over-earnest know-it-all author of such pronouncements as "I am anti-war" and "I think the Royal Family are a waste of time" who claims "I'd love to have met Gandhi - I think I'd have had a lot to share". It's that lack of self-awareness that leads him to compare himself to Anne Frank, noting that the only differences are that she's a girl and dead and complaining that it was only circumstances that contrived to make her diary famous. Through it all runs the conviction that his scrawlings would be published - and they are, in a way, through their incorporation into the show.

The highlight of the second half is a long dialogue with his teenage self who, handed the chance to fight back against the cynicism and derision of the forty-something know-it-all he's become, strikes some telling blows and emerges as far more likeable than simply the brattish author of spiteful and intemperately angry diary entries. It's superbly constructed and performed, something of which most other stand-ups wouldn't even conceive let alone be able to carry off with such style.

The explicit message of a show that is ultimately a heartwarming exploration of youthfulness is that a sense of perspective and a measure of sympathetic understanding are key. The fact that The Headmaster's Son never strays towards the trite or away from the hilarious makes it Herring's best show since The Twelve Tasks Of Hercules Terrace, a stand-up masterclass from a comedian at the top of his game.

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Driven to laughter

So, only a few days after suggesting Stewart Lee is "bitterly angry at TV executives", and especially those involved with BBC2, there he was appearing in the first of his new six-part series 'Stewart Lee's Comedy Vehicle' on - you guessed it - BBC2.

As has been said elsewhere, credit to the Beeb for giving him the freedom to make what is to all intents and purposes a straight stand-up show (last night's sketches were a relatively unsubstantial garnish to the main feast) - and for appreciating the value of his characteristic pauses and stretched gags, rather than imposing obvious abbreviations or cuts.

I witnessed Lee roadtesting the vast majority of last night's material - about books, and specifically the new genre of "celebrity hardbacks" - in October, when he was unfairly upstaged by a surprise guest headlining appearance by Eddie Izzard. On that occasion, I complained that I'd heard most of Izzard's routine trotted out on a repeat of 'The Graham Norton Show' the previous night, so in a way it's ironic that Lee was repeating himself last night - but, personally speaking, the difference is simple: Izzard's material wasn't particularly great, whereas Lee's was. Hence the discovery that he also seems to have mined '41st Best Stand-Up Ever!' for a forthcoming episode is reason for rejoicing rather than disappointment.

As Lee himself would concede (and indeed has), though, he's not to everyone's taste, and here's one amusing dissenting voice. I particularly like the way the key points are handily emboldened, just in case you haven't the time to read the whole review - presumably because you're halfway through 'Harry Potter And The Tree Of Nothing' and want to get it finished before the film comes out...

And what are those key points, exactly? That Lee's comedy is "satire for snobs". That "My [reviewer Sally McIlhone's] dad is a better comedian than Stewart Lee" (given his choice of "surly, arrogant, laboured" as an endorsement in the past, that one could well appear on a future poster). And that Chris Moyles and Jeremy Clarkson, the primary targets of the show, are "sardonic talents" who "incidentally, are immeasurably funnier than Lee".

Needless to say, it's reviews like that that illustrate just how much we need him back on the idiot box.

Friday, 13 March 2009

Get thee to a Munnery show


"I ain't saying she's a gold-digger ... but she's got a beard, carries a pickaxe, lives in the 1930s and is always going on about 'them there hills'." As deadpan opening gags go, it's a beauty and gets John Lean (at least I think that's his name, the internets having been of precious little use in verifying it) off to a flying start. Unfortunately, the rest of his material just isn't up to the same standard, and the gaps between laughs are too long. There is some comedy gold in them there hills, but it needs panning out.

Though Lean tries to incorporate his nervousness and nerdiness into his onstage persona, they're both evidently genuine. The former academic is now a teacher and spends some time sharing his ideas for inappropriately cruel and humiliating punishments for unruly pupils before returning to song lyrics for inspiration, noting that the most remarkable thing about Sir Mix-A-Lot's 'I Like Big Butts' isn't his predilection for plump rumps but his declaration "I cannot lie". OK, so lyrics aren't exactly an unmined seam as far as stand-up goes (think Ed Byrne's famous dissection of Alanis Morissette's 'Ironic' for starters), but if he took his cue from Richard Herring and had the confidence to dwell on his observations longer and push them a bit further, Lean really might be something to write home about.

In between the acts the international students beside me animatedly debate whose country has contributed the best philosophers. Not your usual beered-up crowd baying for knob gags, then, but I suppose this IS Oxford, after all. Still, it's a testament to regular compere Rob Broderick's powers of persuasion that only a few minutes later he's got a woman with a pearl necklace commanding another audience member to join him in a pint-downing race.

Within comedy circles, Simon Munnery is a well-established figure, and has been for years; outside them, mention his name and you're more than likely to receive a blank "Who?" in response. Well, here's who...

The creator of the eccentric stand-up characters Alan Parker: Urban Warrior and The League Against Tedium in the 90s, Munnery drew upon the latter for his BBC2 series 'Attention Scum!', which featured Kevin Eldon, Johnny Vegas and even Catherine Tate and which, in the farcical operatic scenes written by Richard Thomas, foreshadowed 'Jerry Springer: The Opera'. Despite being nominated for a Golden Rose of Montreux, the series was consigned to a graveyard slot close to midnight on Sundays and cancelled before it had even gone to air - much to the disgust of its producer, Stewart Lee, who still seems as bitterly angry at TV executives today as he did in his Guardian article of the time.

'Attention Scum!' was a frequently baffling blast of surrealism, so it's something of a surprise that, after a very short song, Munnery kicks off with a dose of observational comedy, reflecting on how tricky it is to know the correct distance from which it's acceptable to say hello to an approaching person, and the social awkwardness of getting it wrong.

It's quite a while since I last saw him live, at a Just The Tonic night in Nottingham, and the years seem to have changed him slightly - there's still the odd flash of absurdism, but it comes, for instance, in a song he's made up to get his kids eating cabbage. It's almost as though his children give him a continued excuse for silliness.

That said, Munnery was never one for simple clowning around, always fired with a sharp intelligence, and at times tonight he touches on some relatively sensitive and even dark subject matter: he walks a potential tightrope in demanding audience participation for a gleefully jaunty run through a satirical ditty about the credit crunch; a song about his cantankerous not-all-there gran has a tone somewhere between the mischievous and the slightly malicious; and he mentions his crippled hand, an unfortunate side-effect of his otherwise successful chemotherapy treatment, going on to claim that the things he was prescribed are marvellous and they can't be marketing them right - "or maybe they are - 'take drugs or you die'".

He's at his best when doing a Lee and examining his own art under the microscope. Holding up a piece of card with a Venn diagram used to explain Venn diagrams on it, he then tells of an Edinburgh Festival reviewer who described his show as "the closest comedy comes to modern art" - a very back-handed compliment, he feels, suggesting it was neither truly art or truly comedy, a point he illustrates with another Venn diagram: "Here's my show, towards the edge of the comedy circle, in the shit comedy, striving to cross the line into the art circle and become shit art"...

Leaving the venue at the end, I overhear a couple of punters grumbling mildly about the grubby fingerprints all over that piece of card, suggesting we've been entertained with well-worn material - it was all new to me personally, though, so I have no complaints and am just glad Munnery's still with us. He once said: "I could have been a boxer, like my father. He could have been a boxer too". He may not be a boxer, but he certainly seems to know how to roll with the punches.

Friday, 27 February 2009

Coarse fishing


(Ahem - er, yes, a little overdue, this one...)

For someone who's the regular compere elsewhere (the Shaggy Dog Comedy Store in west London), Ben Van der Velde seems rather nervy and a bit hesitant. It doesn't help, of course, that just when he's starting to settle into a groove a phone rings to jolt him out of it. How hard is it to take heed of the pre-gig announcement and afford the performers you - and, more importantly, others - have paid to see the decency of turning off your mobile?

The behatted Geordie evidently feels there's mileage to be had from his Jewishness (or at least feels expected to make some mileage out of it), saying that he doesn't tell jokes about the Holocaust "because there are funnier genocides" and that his Palestinian girlfriend has had her pubic hair waxed into a Gaza strip, but he's at his best when ruminating on the suggestive power of language - the one-word film review "Baffling" from a newspaper, Rick James being charged with "aggravated mayhem"...

Tonight's headline act Richard Herring isn't here to perform his 2008 Edinburgh show 'The Headmaster's Son' (that comes to Oxford in the spring) but to deliver a stand-up set that, it transpires, is so deliberately rude and provocative that it'd merit a firm clip around the lughole were the old man to be present.

He starts off innocuously enough, claiming that "The motto I choose to live my life by is 'My enemy's enemy is my friend'. But I'm my own worst enemy..." and going on to deliver a sequence of increasingly convoluted ripostes to his PE teacher's motto "There's no 'I' in 'team'" and the perverse logic apparently underlying it.

But after that - aside from a segment in which he rails about the stupid reasons people call 999 and the occasional references to being old and having a lifestyle that is pitiable rather than enviable (increasingly familiar these days in the wake of 'Oh Fuck, I'm 40') - it's pretty much what the Daily Mail would no doubt be inclined to label "a non-stop torrent of filth".

Particularly memorable is the section on the playground hand gestures of childhood which betray a fundamental misunderstanding of homosexual acts, Herring of course seizing the opportunity to suggest more realistic alternatives. He jokes of Baby P that his parents "could have at very least given him a name", basking in the nervous laughter of an audience wondering if it's too soon to be making comic capital out of tragedy before adding with a mischevious smirk "I've got worse" and alluding briefly to the Mumbai terrorist attacks.

Even the concluding segment, in which he dissects a simple phrase or comment with trademark persistence and pedantry from every conceivable angle (and some you simply won't have conceived of) - think 'Someone Likes Yoghurt' - focuses on a lewd T-shirt slogan, "Give me head until I'm dead", with predictably unsavoury consequences.

So, what's the point? (With Herring there's nearly always a point, even if it's not immediately obvious.) Is it simply a matter of deliberately pushing the boundaries of taste for cheap laughs, or is there something more going on? The latter, inevitably. As much as he discomforts the lily-livered and offends liberal sensibilities, he still elicits plenty of laughs and, crucially, at one point suggests he's performing comedy "just like Bernard Manning, but in a postmodern way - I know what I'm saying is wrong". Cue chuckles - but then the question that, for me, cuts to the quick: "But does that make it better - or much, much worse?" That seems to reveal the whole show to be a clever critique of the sort of comedy that pleads irony as a defence for saying the unsayable - albeit while at the same time effectively performing the same trick - as well as a robust challenge to audience attitudes and complacency: think for a moment what you're laughing about - you shouldn't be finding it funny.

A set that subverts itself? You don't get that with Jason Manford.