Comedy Crawl Review

Written for the British Comedy Guide

There are real benefits to chaos. You couldn’t ignore the first Comedy Crawl’s serious organisational problems, noisy, awkward venues and confusing, inaccurate schedule. But the line-up was incredible, the acts handled the problems with energy and ingenuity, and a real bond developed between performers and audience as they struggled to be heard over the much larger, long-running music festival. Matt Kirshen (pictured) got one of the weekend’s biggest laughs by having his half of the room shout at the other half, who had been loudly ignoring the comedy all night, to just shut up. It worked.

Downstairs at Lyttleton Arms might be the toughest place I’ve ever seen comedy performed. Open doors and windows let traffic noise and blinding sunlight fill a U-shaped room where at least a hundred people were talking over the act. Fortunately Pippa Evans’ set was powerful enough to grab the whole room’s attention, hold it, and pump out deafening laughs-an extraordinary achievement since half the people there couldn’t even see her. Phil Nichol, up next, clearly understood this was not a place for subtlety and soon had everyone singing along to his Only Gay Eskimo song. It was a rare moment of happy overlap between the two Crawls; wonderful, but made it even more clear that half the audience were there for music.

Throughout the day the regular stand-ups suffered. A few sets I’ve seen in better situations get drowned out by laughter and applause were completely ignored here. One person who did succeed on his own terms was Colin Hoult, who walked right into the crowd and delivered his subtle, strange character act to the few front rows who could hear him, giving 20 people the highlight of their weekend.

Long after the night was scheduled to end, Brendan Burns, Matt Kirshen, and Abandoman were rocking Lock 17 canalside bar. Whilst Kirshen’s solution for the noise problem didn’t last, the acts were all more than capable of delivering in a difficult space. Several great sets later, the audience screamed for an Abandoman encore. Burns and Andrew Maxwell (who just happened to be nearby), delivered their weirdest jokes for Rob Broderick to turn into improvised raps. It could only have happened there. It was awesome.

For a change of pace, the next day I camped out at the Camden Head, where Really Lovely Comedy had found a great venue and put together a stunning line-up. Andrew Maxwell was fantastic as always, Thom Tuck delivered a surreal, wild-eyed, wonderful rant about Disney. Nas Osmanoglu, Iain Stirling and Tim Fitzhigham were all on top form. Pappy’s delighted and The Beta Males were gut-achingly, funny. John-Luke Roberts was, well, as good as John-Luke Roberts: there is no higher possible praise.

Over five hours in on a great venue with no back-stage, a comic soap-opera started up as the on-stage act shouted to their friends. When Pappy’s guitar tuning annoyed Andrew Maxwell (pictured), he improvised a better argument about the superiority of stand-up over sketch than I’ve ever heard. When they had their turn on stage they answered. An extra level of in-jokes, collaboration and competitiveness gave a great gig even more depth and energy.

The weekend felt a little like a battle between music and comedy, with stand-up acts often drowned out and ignored by confused rock fans. Even at the Camden Head the floor vibrated with the hip-hop being played downstairs. So it felt right to end with a winning set from Frisky & Mannish, true cabaret geniuses capable of finding the funny in every song, every singer and performance from extraordinary aria to Z-list celebrity cat-fights.

At some points the Camden Comedy Crawl had all the energy and chaos of the Edinburgh Festival at its late-night best, at others it was painful to watch. If they fix the serious staging problems, next year’s festival should be unmissable.

Advertisements
Posted in Live Show, Review | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

#RoyalZombieFlashMob

Thoughtcrime.

My friend, Hannah Eisman-Renyard, was arrested on Friday. Exactly what she was arrested for is an important question. Her account of the arrest, includes interviews, footage and photos from the scene. You’ll notice a few things. She was dressed as a zombie. She arrived at the flashmob site, but there were only a few other zombies and dozens of press. Nothing much happened, Hannah left to have coffee nearby with new zombie friends. Later, plain-clothes police offices hauled off a protester without warning, things in the park got heated. The police found Hannah and friends drinking coffee in a nearby starbucks, they were stop & searched, detained against their will, then arrested.

What seems to be true, and is deeply scary, is that they were arrested for behaving in a way that was not officially sanctioned. That’s very different from breaking the law. I believe (please correct me if I’m wrong) that in British law everything is assumed to be permitted unless it breaks the law, and everyone is innocent until proven guilty. So you can go outside wearing anything, so long as you’re not breaking nudity laws. In the past here, and some other countries right now (Bhutan!), the law demands you wear a certain type of clothes depending on your age/status/gender/etc.

But the zombies weren’t dangerous, offensive, obstructive, rude, messy, cruel, or even particularly political. They did something that wasn’t in the book of allowed things. They expressed their identity and ideas differently. They laughed at the establishment. They did so in public.

I volunteered in Uganda for a month once, (yeah, yeah, couldn’t afford a whole gap year) and will never forget seeing the charity’s staff -cultured, fun, city-born people, who we got to know well look out of the window before making political jokes.There was (and still is) a horrific civil war going on in northern Uganda. Museveni has been president for 25 years, and is generally perceived as a benevolent but absolute dictator. Satirical jokes can get you sent to jail.

If you can’t laugh at the authorities, or play around with ideas, it is harder to imagine other ways of being. Playing is a way of trying things out, exploring how the world works. Laughing can be a reaction to shared subconscious knowledge brought to light by a well structured sentence. By pointing out flaws, discrepancies and problems, satirical jokes ask why things have to be the way they are. The wedding could have been a great opportunity for the country to think about what living in Britain means to them. We could have celebrated our variety- sure some aristocrats are getting married, but that’s not really the point: over here some people are celebrating their neighbours and community, some are celebrating in geeky costumes, some are celebrating picnics with friends, some have causes they believe in and want to draw attention to them.

But they didn’t want that multitudinous picture. Everything had to be red, white, and blue. We’re all in it together, synchronised flag-waving on the officially sanctioned beat. There’s no place for difference or disagreement – even friendly, cooperative, disagreement.

Which is why jokes are dangerous. Which I think is why my friend got held in a cell for being silly. This isn’t ok.

Posted in Article | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Dave Comedy Society Review

Written for The British Comedy Guide

We’re welcomed by a juggler on a penny farthing, some ushers in formalwear who seem to be working off quirky scripts and all the posters in the Bloomsbury foyer have been adorned with comedy moustaches. Brand-appropriate silliness is everywhere; it might look cheap and cheerful, but it’s precisely aimed at a banter-loving crowd. The photo-booth and props had the whole foyer giggling. Even this cynic couldn’t resist the lure of a whole box of silly hats.

Much to the confusion of some in the audience, Dave’s Comedy Society isn’t being filmed or recorded. With the success of Dave’s One Night Stand, and the channel’s various vodcasts, podcasts and comedy blogs, it’s not surprising that live shows were next on the broadcaster’s list. And so we find “Dave” spelt out in ten-foot high 3D letters across the stage, alongside a slick set of old leather sofas, lamps and a stuffed partridge. Familiar as the set-up is to anyone who has seen a Dave ad-break, somehow here it’s strange. The scale and detail seems more suited to a TV or theatre set, and it’s not until headliner Alun Cochrane enters and hides the mic stand behind the D (leaving the compere briefly baffled) that they are even mentioned.

With stand-up gigs now regularly aired in prime-time on the BBC and Channel 4 it might seem strange that there is still real tensions between TV and live comedy styles. But remember that those TV shows are pre-recorded and carefully edited; it’s still not that long since Frankie Boyle blamed censorship for his quitting Mock the Week. If the Daily Mail’s regular campaigns against one-liners it finds offensive have died down, it’s more likely that TV has learnt caution rather than that we are enjoying a sudden golden age of free speech.

Jason Cook wins over the crowd in seconds, and treats the heckle from a porn translator as the gift it is. Yes, really – a man whose job it is to translate the scripted bits in porn. It’s a perfect example of something that couldn’t be allowed in a TV cut but is chest-achingly funny. It’s also well suited to Cook’s style, where with enough emotional honesty and a playful self-deprecating grin he can turn the most surreal, twisted, situation into something embarrassing yet familiar. He’s intensely likeable, but doesn’t use that as an excuse not to deliver on belly laughs, weaving great gags into energetic audience banter. It almost feels by the end that he’s stolen the show, but you couldn’t believe that of someone so nice.

Andrew Lawrence has probably never looked comfortable in his life, and one hopes he never will. He squirms around the mic stand spitting out venomous, frantic, eloquent rants. He gets the most laughs at his darkest, but tonight that’s a lot less dark that he can be. There are fantastic moments – after a long, exhausting build up seems to have reached its peak, there’s often not just one biting follow-up joke but two or three, each of which hit home. However in the slower sections the same bitterness can begin to drag. Lawrence is in his element in hour-long shows where his audience knows what to expect and he can unleash the full force of his extraordinary, horrific rants. However, it’s hard not to suspect that despite the fact that this show isn’t being filmed, his set has been toned down for tonight and that, in doing so, some of the power that has earned him a string of Perrier nominations is lost.

Frisky and Mannish are also star-encrusted darlings of Edinburgh who have yet to make serious moves into TV or radio. The change of pace could have been quite jarring, but they trust their audience. Immediately an extraordinary voice transports your soul to a place where the grammar mistakes in popular songs are fixed. If you haven’t yet seen Frisky and Mannish live there is simply no way to convince you how good the performance is. Her voice, his piano-playing, their dancing, the costumes, his voice & her hats… whatever you’re thinking of, it’s a better than that. But the jokes do sometimes take quite a long time to arrive. Their new collision theory set (essentially a best-of) has a nice mix of their clever genre-mashups and impressions. Their simpler gags, like the grammar one, might seem cheap if they weren’t so powerfully performed – but the contrast is half the joke. Tonight, the audience laughs where it should, there are a few great sections, and sometimes – like the dance-off finale, where they make great use of the vast stage – it verges on spectacular.

Alun Cochrane walks out apologising for messing up his entrance music and complaining that despite Dave’s backing he still hasn’t managed to fill the Bloomsbury (it’s a lot more fun than it sounds). Proceeding to hide the mic stand inside the enormous ‘D’ and then sitting down in the shiny leather chair, Cochrane is supremely confident on even this strange stage. There are points where it all feels a little too laid back but some great anecdotes – including one about using his young son as a babe magnet – bring the crowd back. Generally it’s a warm, friendly set. There’s lots of whimsical wit and a slow-burning charm which will serve him well in his inevitable move into panel-shows. When Cochrane does slip into some darker areas – his opening story is about someone too obese and depressed to open a window – his gentle pacing has the audience giggling before they realise the punch-line was the end of civilisation and hope.

Monday is a difficult night for comedy, and trying something new can sap energy as well. Even if the crowd was a little quiet, and things occasionally felt slightly slow, it might be down to first night nerves at a night that’s trying to do something different. If it’s because the looming presence of the TV channel was encouraging the comedians to self-censor, that’s more worrying. Hopefully tonight’s show proved to the media-moguls in the audience that the core of live comedy is risk and spontaneity – the respect between act and audience that comes because if things go wrong it can’t be hidden by an edit. The fact that if you ask someone what their job is, they might answer, in front of everyone, that they **** the **** up it’s *****.

Future dates for ‘Dave’s Comedy Society: Live’ will be announced soon.

Posted in Live Show, Review | Leave a comment

Doug Stanhope Review

written for The British Comedy Guide

“I’m your what? Your deity? Did you not listen at all to the atheism stuff?” The wide-eyed fan sat in the centre of the front row three nights running has failed Doug Stanhope.

Stanhope hates being in London, he’s groggy with Xanax, he’s utterly sick and tired of all of this, and now he’s going to have to change his material to make sure one guy gets his money’s worth. One guy who has managed to undermine Stanhope’s unsentimental rationalism before he even started his act.

But still the exquisitely crafted, rich, dark, ferocious vitriol flows like sharp, strong liquor. The last year has seen Stanhope temper righteous fury with complaints about the ultimate futility of intelligence and rationality, and the failure of him, his comedy and his audience to effect any real change, but this certainly hasn’t diluted the comedy. Stanhope may be the latest in an illustrious (if ill-kempt) line stretching through Bill Hicks, past Lenny Bruce back to court fools and mad oracles, but he is also gut-wrenchingly funny. The grim reality of inevitable death, graphically summoned by his father’s grey, cancerous corpse leaves the audience roaring with laughter.

Whilst attention is usually focused on his dark material, Stanhope is a supreme craftsman of live comedy. At points he pauses before a story’s climax, seemingly bewildered by the scale of the failures and idiocy he finds in reality, humanity and himself. Honest or not, it works better than the self-deprecating stutter so common in alternative comics. His crowd would follow their wounded idealist anywhere, and when he’s willing to respect their intelligence and to change an act halfway through to ensure his front-row superfan gets to see new stuff, who can blame them?

Whilst Stanhope doesn’t do audience banter, much of his material is aimed squarely at them; not the wider world but you, right there, who has come out today to watch, and to laugh but will go home and do nothing different. Specifically in this case a room of smart, broke, angry, young people 200 metres from Trafalgar Square, where many may have marched or rioted less than a week before. One inspired rant about the failure of rationalists to accomplish anything whilst religion motivates people to traipse the world has the audience howling with laughter. Just as the silent smug thoughts about the recent protest action began, before the laughter has faded – before anyone could heckle – Stanhope is ahead of us tearing apart the protest’s logic and we howl again, this time unreservedly and directly at ourselves.

Perhaps Doug Stanhope really is tired of comedy, and the failure of his act and audience to effect change really does chafe. But he has always moulded tragedy into exquisite comedy. Alongside fantastic bits about Charlie Sheen, celebrity doctors, addiction, offensive language and death, his own performance and audience offers new targets for his frustrated rage. “Do you think this isn’t an act?” “Do you think I enjoy this?”

So… by suffering he’ll save us from ourselves. Where have we heard that before?

For more information on Doug’s tour dates, etc. go to www.dougstanhope.com

Posted in Live Show, Review | Leave a comment

Doug Stanhope Interview

written for The British Comedy Guide

Doug Stanhope’s act is infamously drunken, filthy and furiously intelligent. After 20 years exploring areas few comics would touch, he still draws unsettlingly insightful social commentary from sex with deformed babies, suicidal elderly mothers and the darkest depths of internet porn. His rock & roll lifestyle of the extremes of drugs, sex and booze has become legendary in itself. He managed to start a riot in Leeds, stir up regular press-storms and most recently launch an attack on the arrogance of comedy producers and reviewers.

When he opens the door wearing longjohns and woolly hat, and tells me to get in quick before the hotel smells the smoke, it’s not too much of a surprise.

“I hate coming over here, but the crowds are great. Comedy is respected in a way you never see in the States. I’ve never once seen a review of a comedy show in the States – in the big cities they’ll do the occasional preview all ripped out of your Wikipedia page, but there are no critics. Here it’s respected as an art form – which is a double edged sword. Whilst in the States you can be really fucking lazy, here any random show you do might be in The Herald tomorrow: ‘He was drunk, he fucked up a lot, told the audience to go fuck themselves.’ Still, it keeps me working. I work out of fear rather than out of love for the art.”

Comedy itself doesn’t factor too highly in his description of influences. “Sure as kid I listened to Bill Cosby, but my influences have always been my peers. I always had funny friends, and they influenced me far more than any stand-up comic. Then when I started reading deeply things like Howard Bloom’s You Are Being Lied To, conspiracy theories, and so on – my act changed. It went from transvestites, dick jokes and sex-stories to something with more meat and value. But the act began ruining my life – it still does to an extent – I get so angry at stuff that I have no power to change. Yelling into a mike doesn’t do anything, and if you read more, you just get more paranoid. At some point you have to put it in perspective. There might be an Illuminati, world bankers might be conspiring to enslave us as a nation but it doesn’t affect my day. You have to realise that you’re not going to change the world.”

Political comedians will never change anything: “That’s the whole point of comedy. But if you can laugh at something you should – it’s better than weeping. Charlie Chaplin said ‘you have to laugh in the face of your helplessness against the forces of nature or go insane.’ I’ve read things that say knowledge doesn’t have to lead to this, but all I’ve found is despair.”

“There are things I’ve never been able to talk about because it just comes out as anger. The prison system for instance: the entire judiciary system is so inhuman, so illogical. So much of what we do is based on no logic whatsoever. Where would you start writing jokes about Libya? Ok, so the rebels are taking over so the people will elect their own leaders. Well why do you need leaders? The basic principles are flawed. I have a lot of topics like that where when I’ve tried to do bits it just comes out as preachy with no jokes.”

“On the other hand when you are actually angry about a subject it’s a lot easier to sell. That’s a problem when you have to repeat yourself so often as a comic. It’s always felt very, very fake. I do drink to excess on stage, and that gives spontaneity and realism. I really have just remembered this bit and I’m not sure how to do it. Sometimes I’ll forget the punch-line, or the set-up, but I’d rather that than try to seem passionate when you’ve said the line a thousand times.”

So it’s a gamble coming to see you? “Yeah. Sometimes you lose.”

Despite the occasional press-storm and riot, Stanhope writes off any worries about censorship: “It’s never really been an issue in live stand-up comedy. Frankie Boyle got good press from a few articles, but in live stand-up there aren’t any taboo subjects anymore. There is nothing I wouldn’t feel comfortable talking about on stage, particularly since my audience is about as jaded as you can get. It makes it harder to push buttons.”

The stadium tour doesn’t appeal. “Comedy – especially what I do – demands intimacy. All things being equal I’d only do 75 seaters; Lenny Bruce-style, single spotlight, low-ceiling rooms you can smoke in. Unless something tragic happens I will end up going back down that route; I’ll be back on the road in 50 seaters and be happy if I can get them full. Right now I work Rock’n’Rolls clubs, so I feel quite outside of the industry.

“In a comedy club they have to worry about their regular clientele; people who think comedy is all the same as late night with Conan O’Brien. So they usually will book very mainstream, very middle-of the road acts, and even if they do agree to book you, you’re going to have people coming in expecting what they saw last time they were there. I have enough of a fanbase now that I don’t need to deal with that. In a Rock’n’Roll club no one’s telling you what to do. You could be preaching sermons and christening babies; they don’t care so long as it brings a good bar haul.”

“The comedy industry is a business at the end of the day. They do what sells. It’s why entertainment across the board is so mediocre. Dancing With The Stars is the number one show on television in the States. Who watches dancing? I can’t even imagine it… I suppose it’s far more lucrative to be a middle-of-the-road type of person.”

Right now, there’s little in politics or culture that angers or excites him: “Except Charlie Sheen. He’s brilliant, the first time in ages I’ve been not just aware but passionate about something in pop-culture. It’s usually so bland and awful that you only have to be a little bit weird to stand out, but he’s full-blown Hunter S Thompson weird and over the top. Not just that, but amongst all the ‘vatican assassin warlock’ t-shirt-ready stuff he makes points that are completely valid.”

“They ask him ‘Charlie Sheen what happens when your children are old enough to read about this?’ And he said ‘I hope they do – what better education can there be?’ He talks about how we hide children from the truth. ‘You tell your children ‘don’t eat candy, don’t eat candy’, but then on their birthday their head explodes from eating 7000 candy bombs all at once.’ It’s all true but he cloaks it in this incredible language.”

So where have the Rock’n’Roll comics gone? “I might be the last comic drinking in the States; everyone’s sobered up, they’re working on a screenplay, everyone’s got a project. Here at least you still have people getting hammered.”

On who he like to watch himself, Stanhope enthuses: “David Attell is probably the best comic of our generation, Sean Rouse, Andy Andrist, are great comics’ comics. Maria Bamford and Glenn Wool) are brilliant. Neil Hamburger I love. I ran off the stage to be there in time to see him. His act is set up for people to not get it and hate it. I love that.”

“I find it really hard to watch other acts unless they’re really great or really bad. Watching someone die miserably is so much fun for the audience. I mean really horrible deaths. People complain about it, but that means they’ll be talking about it – something interesting happened. Just watching some guy do ok is the worst comedy in the world. I’d rather have you throwing bottles than looking at your watch.”

“The riot in Leeds was fun. But you can’t plan that. ‘You know what’d be fun, if I suck in front of 1200 people and they throw garbage at me’. That was fun in hindsight, when I was running out the back door with a cheque in my pocket giggling, and the driver still had to open a door for me. This week I do Hammersmith Apollo, my biggest ever solo show, and that’s twice as big. If the Apollo goes down I’m going to make sure it goes down in flames. If it’s going to suck it’ll suck to infinite levels. And I’m going to stand up there and wait until everyone leaves – all 3000 of you. Every single one.”

To find out more about Doug, and for his UK tour dates see www.dougstanhope.com

Posted in Interview, Live Show | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment