Thursday, 9 December 2010

Quote of the day

"In the slipstream of the mass popularity of stand-up, even the person who is supposed to be the alternative to stand-up can do reasonably well. All of us comics must offer thanks to one man, and one man alone, for this state of affairs. Michael McIntyre.

For it was 'Michael McIntyre's Comedy Roadshow' that convinced the public that they might like stand-up, en masse, and he has begun to make household names of some hugely worthwhile acts, who somehow managed to shine in the show's brutal showcase format. Though McIntyre's massively popular and super-evolved brand of observational schtick is regarded with baffled ambivalence by many comedians, he may, on balance, be a good thing for the future of stand-up as an art form. The skipping humorist's utilitarian ubiquity means that everyone knows what a stand-up comedian is now. And the idea of going to see stand-up comedy is now no longer something only those with very specialised interests do.

Stewart Lee singling Michael McIntyre out for credit (if not outright praise), rather than damning him as the embodiment of all he hates about stand-up? Not something I'd have expected to read...

Lee's got a point - comedy is a booming business now, and it's not just the big hitters who are benefitting from McIntyre's success and patronage. But this suggests that the erosion of the traditional divide between mainstream and alternative comedy doesn't really matter - a viewpoint which seems hard to square with his usual pronouncements on stand-up.

What he does recognise, though, is that we're at a turning point and that this great breakthrough and surge of interest could well result in stultifying, derivative, tediously safe comedy. I suspect (fear) that that will be the outcome of entrusting stand-up's future to the general public, though the normally cynical Lee appears to have more faith in his fellow man. Perhaps, if a safe consensus comedy does come to rule the roost, then that will encourage a new oppositional or alternative strand to develop and the cycle will begin all over again?

Sunday, 7 November 2010

"Do you ever have dark thoughts?"

Jurassic Park! Alan Partridge is back, currently starring in a series of short online snippets sponsored by a certain manufacturer of cooking lager. The first episode bears all of the usual hallmarks and the addition of Tim Key as Sidekick Simon ("Man the barricades!") for some spurious banter works well. It's a little forced in places, but for the most part a very welcome return.

I do wonder, though, what Stewart Lee will have made of friend and collaborator Armando Iannucci's involvement, given his bilious Edinburgh Festival rant in the summer...

Coogan has also returned to the mainstream media with new sitcom The Trip, which features he and Rob Brydon playing caricatures of themselves on a national tour reviewing restaurants. It's directed by Michael Winterbottom, who has already worked with Coogan on 24 Hour Party People and with both of them on A Cock & Bull Story.

The premise, essentially, is to milk the generally amicable but subtly competitive relationship between the two that the latter film first showcased, as Stephanie Merritt acknowledged in her recent profile piece on Coogan for the Guardian. The first episode took a while to get going, but once they were duelling with impersonations over dinner the concept's strength really shone through.

A Friday evening in also gave me the opportunity to catch up with the first two episodes of the second series of Getting On. Somehow the award-winning first series completely passed me by, but I'm pleased to report that it's quality viewing. Given the frequently harrowing subject matter, "dark" hardly does it justice - but the hospital staff's gallows humour (which I imagine strikes a chord with NHS employees everywhere) ensures there are enough laughs to prevent it from becoming too bleak.

Nice to see that Jo Brand, a former psychiatric nurse, isn't the only person involved to be drawing usefully on personal experience - Peter Capaldi has also clearly picked up some directorial tips from his time as Malcolm Tucker in The Thick Of It, while Joanna Scanlan, who also featured in Iannucci's political sitcom, co-stars and co-writes here.

Monday, 1 November 2010

The Goodies 40th Anniversary

To celebrate the 40th anniversary of the awesome TV comedy show The Goodies, there's going to be a birthday party!

Tickets are now on sale for the Goodies 40th Birthday Party on 6th November 2010, at the Lass O’Gowrie in Manchester.

The tickets cost £30 each and include entry for the whole day, including all events and activities, autographs and even a very special party Goody Bag.

To find out more about the event (and the competitions) please visit the event's page:

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Quote of the day

"Before doing a TV series next year, Stewart Lee is setting out on an 18-date tour to venues where he believes he has a 'trusting' fan base — and the Regal in Cowley Road is one of them (typically he’s now not too sure about two other places, but it’s too late!)."

From this Oxford Mail article about Lee, previewing next week's show for which I've now got tickets. I must confess to being a bit surprised - and disappointed - that he seems to have been keen to play it safe. That's not something you'd expect of him, though one thing you could perhaps accuse him of is preaching to the converted - perhaps touring new show Vegetable Stew around Jongleurs nationwide would have been a more challenging but ultimately more rewarding venture?

Sunday, 8 August 2010

Know Your Enemy

"Corporate Whores. Morons. Illiterates.

There is so much good stuff you could use your corporate funding for, and instead, year in, year out, you make these crass decisions.

The whole thing will blow up in your face. Then, perhaps, we will see an end to your nonsense.

Your cynicism is breathtaking. Your Edinburgh Comedy God idea is banal. There are no comedy gods. Enjoy your Edinburgh Comedy Festival™.

Stewart Lee takes entertainingly violent exception to the Foster's Comedy God poll, calling upon comedy aficionados to sabotage the sorry process out of respect for "that wonderful, indefinable, mischievous, playful thing we call The Spirit Of The Fringe" by voting for Japanese performance art duo Frank Chickens.

Also on a comedy tip, I was intrigued by the prospect of The Trip, a new sitcom directed by Michael Winterbottom and starring Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon - not least because they were very good together in Winterbottom's A Cock & Bull Story and there's a certain irony in Coogan, a man with a notoriously fractious relationship with critics, himself playing a critic (albeit of restaurants)...

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.