SIMON MUNNERY / JOHN LEAN, 26TH JANUARY 2009, OXFORD CELLAR
"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.