At the start of 2020 I joined another of Chris Head’s excellent stand-up comedy courses, hosted at the Old Coffee House in Soho. This one was for new material development for non-beginners (I wouldn’t go so far as to call myself an experienced stand-up although several of my course mates were comedians with a lot of gigs behind them).
Little did any of us anticipate what was to come in March 2020.
Fortunately we managed to complete the taught part of the course but the end-of-course showcase was scheduled for 17th March (St. Patrick’s Day) and, in his infinite wisdom, our great leader of a prime-minister decided to tell the whole country the evening before that they should not visit pubs, clubs, restaurants or, in fact, any social gathering due to the spread of Coronavirus. In keeping with his directionless dithering, it wasn’t until the end of that week that the government put any legal direction (requiring compensation for the affected businesses) behind this “advice”.
Nevertheless, the damage was done and the showcase had to be cancelled at very short notice.
In the light of the subsequent pandemic, perhaps the cancellation of our showcase seems like small beer and myself and many of my coursemates thought that it would be a small casualty of the damage that the lockdowns caused to the hospitality and entertainment industry (never mind compared with the cost in human terms of the pandemic). Various of us ended up far from London anyway (Naomi went back to New Zealand, where she’s hopefully avoided the worst of the virus but isn’t likely to be allowed to pop back for a quick trip to England any time soon. Pete was already building Nightingale Hospitals in his day job as an army officer and he was due to be posted up to Catterick, I seem to remember.)
But while we knew Chris was a nice chap, we didn’t expect him to remember the cancelled showcase when things started to get back to some sort of “normal” in mid-2021. Yet he did — and he booked the show at one of London’s best comedy venues, The Bill Murray in Islington. This pub/club is where many of the stars of the comedy world do new material shows and the night after our show, Nina Conti was due to perform.
So six of us from the (ahem) experienced course and six from Chris’s beginners course took to the Bill Murray stage on 18th October 2021 — nineteen months and a day after it was originally scheduled. The overall standard of all the comedians, after such a long hiatus, was amazingly good
I can’t say that my act featured all new material but there’s a few Coronavirus references. It was professionally videoed and you’ve probably already seen it at the top of the post.
So, I managed to do a stand-up slot in the middle of the pandemic in front of a live audience!
I did a relatively topical five minutes with a few reasonably good taste Coronavirus jokes thrown in as well (most thought up on the day of the performance). The Cavendish Arms invested in a lot of hi-tech video equipment to help run remote and socially distanced live-streamed performances and a benefit of this means a very professionally put together video for the performers — with lots of camera angles.
Here it is:
It was a five minute spot on Monday 14th December at the last Comedy Virgins show before the government imposed Tier 3 Coronavirus restrictions on London, thus banning all such live entertainment (and pretty much banning all fun and socialising).
This is terrible news for venues like the Cavendish Arms, which (as can be seen on the below video) has gone to great lengths to ensure a socially distanced, Covid-safe environment. All audience members are kept within a household or bubble and are separated by transparent screens.
Capacity is massively reduced (to about a third) and the audience is instructed not to cheer or shout out (unthinkable for stand-up routines in normal times). The government hasn’t quite managed to stop people laughing yet but the small audience and subdued atmosphere means that laughs are rarer than usual in these venues.
Thanks to Jon for being my bringer and if you want to ensure that stand-up comedy venues like the Cav (as the pub is know for short) are around after the pandemic then please support them. Those who aren’t familiar with the London stand-up scene might not realise what an important role that the Cav has played a huge role in nurturing the early careers of some very famous stand-up comedians. It’s often said (although it’s difficult to find confirmation online) that the likes of Rometh Ranganathan and Rob Beckett were regular performers a few years ago. I was on the same bill as Tez Ilyas when I appeared there a year or two ago — and now he’s on the telly too!
I contributed to the Cav’s crowdfunding appeal in the first lockdown and with government support being particularly spiteful towards pubs, they might need to do similar again.
A video of me continuing to attempt to do stand up comedy (do I never learn?)
This one was in January at Funny Feckers, a great night organised and MC’d by Wes Dalton, who I’d met on one of Chris Head’s courses a couple of years ago. Wes is a great MC and it was fantastic to get a spot on one of his nights — he takes a lot of trouble to get a good selection of acts for each of his shows.
Sadly, this was one of the last nights held downstairs in the cellar of the Constitution Pub by the canal between Camden and St. Pancras. It was absolutely packed and there was a great atmosphere. The pub was sold to a developer and suddenly closed.
Many thanks to Jon and Anna who came along on the night to support me.
A round-up the rest of the performers I saw in my intensive two days in Edinburgh — highlighting the aspects of comedy that appeared to be strongest in each.
I saw the sketch show by Just These Please at the Gilded Balloon Teviot during a convenient and relatively clash-free lunchtime. It was a four-handed, fast-paced show of the type I’ve seen recorded in the BBC Radio Theatre several times — except this bunch performed without scripts in their hands and no leeway to corpse and fill in with retakes at the end. So credit to them all for performing the show so seamlessly. I thought their darker material (shades of dark, given the performance time!) was more promising — especially the polite middle-class people meeting dog walking after anonymous encounters at suburban orgies (although it was interesting material to present before one o’clock in the afternoon).
I was puzzled over why their signature team look appeared to be over-sized lounge suits. Perhaps there’s an elaborate double bluff going on — “people think we’re rather posh so we’ll try to get in on the joke and be ironic by sartorially portraying ourselves as knowingly twee”. I’d like to think it’s a tribute to the great leader of ill-fitting, suit-wearing comedians, Alexei Sayle in his prime, but somehow I don’t see the two acts comfortably co-existing.
Nevertheless, there’s a very limited amount of busking and improvising that can be fallen back on in a collective show like this so these four really had to know their material inside-out and appeared to pull it off with ease.
Maisie Adam is an easeful performer with a charming, Yorkshire persona — and not necessarily from straight-down-the-pit. As she points out, middle-class people are known to exist in Yorkshire. (Perhaps Waitrose has even made it there.) In the early part of the show she kept the audience entertained with a mixture of anecdotes about her upbringing and framed this around a loose theme of people getting caught for transgressing (Hugh Grant and Mick Jagger’s mug shots were on a washing line) and then partially redeeming themselves by being honest and owning their shame, rather than persisting with the lie. She made allusions to the current bunch of disgracefully shameless liars occupying both 10 Downing Street and the White House and it seemed a cop-out at the time, it appeared she was too nervous of compromising her scatty persona to press that obvious conclusion home. It almost felt immoral that she didn’t.
At this point, with the set apparently swerving direction and missing targets that appeared to have been set up, it became clear that Adam was preparing the audience for a big narrative reveal — the kind of twist that makes the earlier references and their arrested development much more explicable. Another interesting dead end (perhaps well avoided) was when she mentioned a case where two parents had left their children briefly unattended on a foreign holiday (and, no, it wasn’t that one).
And then about three-quarters of the way through the set (at the point where the third act would begin in a classical narrative arc) she made a big, personal reveal. It wouldn’t be fair to describe the twist any further but it put the previous forty-five minutes into clear context. This was a comedian structuring her hour meticulously — a far cry from one-line joke tellers — and obviously revelling in her freedom from the constraints of five or ten minute slots.
Cultural References and Incongruity
Olga Koch‘s background has given her a well-stuffed repository of cultural references to mine for her sets. She was born in Russia (and has a Russian family), she was educated in the US and has lived and is now presumably based in the UK. Much of the set was composed of humorous cultural contrasts, such as traditional Russian attitudes to women.
She’s also unusual in that she studied computer programming at college — a speciality that shouldn’t (and didn’t used to) seem unusual for a young woman but she found herself very much in the minority among stereotypical male computer nerds.
The theme of her set was loosely based around the binary concepts found in computer science — particularly the if/then conditional operator where the logic can only proceed in one of two ways depending on whether a condition is true or false.
It’s a profound concept — perhaps not that easy to explain to a comedy audience expecting jokes but one that actually does underlie the way much comedy actually works. Often jokes are structured around contradictions, especially when there’s a sudden switch between two mutually exclusive interpretations (“A man walks into a bar. Ow! It was an iron bar.”).
The if/then construct also represents the point at which hard decisions need to be taken. It’s the opposite of the idea of having your cake and eating it. It’s where the Orwellian concept of maintaining two fundamentally incompatible beliefs hits the natural laws of logic. Again, this principle underlines much comedy — often satire where the laughs are generated by the audience’s awareness that the hypocrisy, lies and double-standards of the subject (take a certain newly undemocratically installed prime-minister for instance) mean that what’s being said is the opposite of what’s truly believed. But it also applies to basics like the banana skin (man walks towards banana skin, we know he’s going towards it, the humour is that we know it’s impossible to have two incompatible states in which he both steps on the skin and stays upright, at the moment of the slip he switches condition as in an if/then statement and it’s the irrevocability of this that’s amusing).
But fortunately for the audience, Olga didn’t go into any of this analytical stuff in great detail. She just concentrated on being funny.
Working the Audience
By logistical chance I was one of the first to line up for Joanne McNally‘s show, The Prosecco Express. (Being an Edinburgh newbie meant I didn’t realise that the Assembly Studios were actually re-purposed university lecture rooms and that the consequent layout means that the queues were in different places to the rooms.)
Being one of the first to be admitted, I had that terrible dilemma of entering any empty auditorium without an allocated seat-plan but particularly so for stand-up comedy. Do I dare go and sit at the front? This question was made all the more difficult as Joanne McNally was already on the stage ad-libbing comments about the entering audience. In the end I decided to be brave and sat at the front, although not in the centre.
There’s an interesting dynamic with comedy audiences — with most of the audience members quite fearful of “being embarassed” by being “picked-on” by the comedian on stage. There’s an interesting contradiction if the same people are asked whether they’d ever try their hand at stand-up. Apart from the initial terror of public speaking, most people say they’d be terrified of being heckled.
For some people these fears tend to dissipate with experience — it’s said that budding stand-ups need to get the experience of dozens of gigs under their belts in which they don’t get heckled to develop the confidence to deal with infrequent occurrences. There’s also a type of regular audience member who enjoys (and comes to expect) some interaction with the comedian. It’s part of the skill of the MC to read an audience, identify those who want to join in and also (and this is crucial for the enjoyment of everyone else) to frame the exchanges in the form of simple (yes/no) or predictable answer questions to which a prepared or improvised response can be given that emphasises who has the upper hand in the situation. (The MC also performs a vital function in identifying suitable targets for the other acts on the bill, who’ll often stand at the back assiduously taking notes.)
The more subtly this can be achieved the better — but in the end there’s a reason why a stand-up comedian is invariably given a microphone, is brightly lit and (usually) elevated above the audience, even in a small room. It’s because the billed comedian is the person in control — the one the audience has given its prior consent to be entertained by. If it turns into a free-for-all then why not save the admission fee and go down to the nearest Wetherspoons in the evening where there’s probably no shortage of unfunny loudmouths waiting to share their obnoxious views?
Joanne McNally worked her audience well. I can understand why she chose to watch them file in — subtly performing her own MC intelligence gathering. In the end I was glad I sat on the front row. I was put on the spot a couple of times, gamely offering up responses that were neither outrageously embarrassing nor cringeing with the attention (so she concentrated on more productive targets). At various points she stepped off the (admittedly low) stage to stand right up against the front row and I was able to observe how she used her presence to manage the audience — facial expressions, gestures, body posture.
She’s a confident performer — she’s regularly on the telly in Ireland — and her interrogative style mostly worked well for her material. This centred around confessional themes of relationships, sex and friends embarking on different life-stages that the title suggested might be up for discussion after a bottle of two of prosecco. I thought she was straying into potentially risky territory with a couple of the questions she fired at the audience (one related to partner’s genitals) and she did seem momentarily floored when an audience member shot back a reference to some of her own most risque subject material when asked a question later.
I also was a little disappointed that the subject of prosecco itself was manifested in little more than a flute of the fizzy stuff as a prop which was mostly untouched during the show. But I guess she was enjoying her engagement with the audience too much to worry about that.
I came across one show at Edinburgh via the unconventional route of the BBC Radio 4 Food Programme special episode on food and comedy, which was timed to coincide with the festival and presented by George Egg (whose maniacal cookery using power tools I’ve seen live before).
Alistair Williams was trailed as performing comedy with a message — about eating good food — or at least avoiding the nutritional disaster area of highly processed food. Given the background of this blog, it was something that appealed to me. His show How to Lose Weight and Be Less Racist was at a time that fitted in my schedule so I decided to go along to Just the Tonic at the Caves — a warren of a venue hidden away under the arches of South Bridge.
I was quite impressed with Williams as a performer. He had a confident stage presence that verged on cockiness without quite crossing into that territory although his blokey persona never dropped to expose any of the personal vulnerabilities that truly endear a performer to the audience.
I was far more interested in the food part of his 60-minute set. The gist of this was the ultra-simplified notion that eating any amount of “real” food won’t make you fat whereas gorging on processed pap will. (This doesn’t stand up to any real scientific scrutiny — for example, fruit is very high in sugar — but the general point is true in that unprocessed food tends to be high in fibre and fibre fills you up.)
I was surprised that his set didn’t explore any connections between the two subjects in the show’s title (it was difficult to imagine what those connections would be but surely that was the teaser). At one point he looked at his watch and said something like: “We’ve got twenty or so minutes left, I suppose I’d better do more on the less racist bit.” In the end there was very little that connected the two topics in the show’s title, except that they seemed to be the two subjects that Williams habitually covers. I doubt whether if I’d been looking through the normal listings whether I’d have chosen to go to a show with that title had it not been for the Food Programme’s endorsement. (Generally comedians’ shows’ titles seem self-indulgent to me — especially as they often recycle material from a previous show — and make little impression.)
Although the set seemed to avoid any overt controversy or provocation in the non-food related parts of the show there was a section when his confident persona suddenly played the indignant victim of unfair reviews and comments of previous Edinburgh shows. (Why bring up past reviews early in the show when the audience wants to be in a position to make its own judgement? Railing against past criticism on stage rarely seems to end well). Laughs were generated by the stand-up techniques of selective exaggeration and status flipping — but still a defensive choice of subject matter.
Having mostly enjoyed the show but feeling like I’d been missing something in the way of context, I later searched for Williams online. There was surprisingly little in the way of reviews, especially recent ones. Yet all seemed to be explained when I came across the only search result from a national newspaper (if it can be called that) — the Daily Express — praising Williams for a routine that apparently had an audience cheering (remember that verb) when he compared a no-deal Brexit with deciding to leaving Burger King.
Yes, it’s that easy — if only teams of international negotiators weren’t so much part of the elite that they don’t know how to walk through a door. And forget all those details like citizens’ rights, borders, trade and other irritating trivia. And being part of an international union of nations is as transactional as buying a burger (quite a telling analogy). Again, this is a routine stand-up trick — make a far-fetched comparison and work it to the point of ridiculousness — except the comparison in this one is so asinine and inappropriate. A more accurate comparison would be trying to leave Burger King with a Whopper you’d not paid for (suddenly not so funny).
Of course, it’s not the absurdity that the Express celebrates but ‘s that the laughs are being generated because of an underlying hostility towards the butt of the joke (ostensibly Theresa May but also, it’s obvious to extrapolate, everyone who opposes a no-deal Brexit — most likely the vast majority of the Edinburgh fringe audience). This wasn’t a one-off. His YouTube channel and Twitter account appear to concentrate much more on this sort of material, possibly trying to play to the market for comedians with contrarian viewpoints than food.
I don’t particularly have a problem with comedians who self-identify as right-wing (and there seems to be plenty of people in the food and drink industries I associate with who aren’t exactly left wing). There don’t seem to be many good right-of-centre comedians around at the moment but there certainly have been in the past. I’m not particularly a fan of overtly left-wing comedians either, unless there’s some irony and self-ridicule in their routines. I found the “bit of politics” ostentatiously left-wing rants of the likes of Ben Elton in the 1980s to be obnoxious. A comedy tutor made the very perceptive point that a comedian should be very wary of being cheered (for making political points an audience might want to show its agreement with) as opposed to getting laughs. Getting genuine laughs is much harder than sloganeering to the converted.
So I went to see a comedy set that promised, and partially delivered, an interesting take on food but was left afterwards with an element of distaste in my mouth. Alistair Williams did some good material on the nutritional inadequacies of the likes of McDonalds. It’s a shame he doesn’t concentrate on this and also take his Burger King analogies off the online menu.
I finally made it to Edinburgh for the fringe this year!
So many people had recommended it to me over the years — and now I see the reason why. It was only a fleeting visit of two days — and, even then, because of the expense of accommodation, I stayed in a hotel a distance away from Edinburgh that would have constituted a respectable London commute. (Because of the travel I wasn’t able to join some of the late night events, such as my ex-tutor Kate Smurthwaite’s Late With Kate, which I would have liked to have gone along to.)
Even so, I managed to squeeze in eight shows over two days, almost all comedy. Even if you stayed for the full duration it would only be possible to take in a tiny sample of the thousands of shows on offer. Only by walking around and seeing virtually every public surface plastered with posters is it possible to comprehend how many different venues and acts are competing for the audience’s time.
The official Fringe programme also makes this point — it’s almost telephone directory size — putting many a Thomson local (of days gone by) to shame.
Thankfully there’s a useful official Fringe website and mobile phone app that allows a prospective fringe-goer to search for shows, enter them into a useful day-by-day planner and book tickets online (with lots of physical ticketing points).
I didn’t want to pre-plan too much — I imagined before I arrived that there would be lots of opportunities to grab flyers and spontaneously pitch up at rising stars’shows. Nevertheless, I didn’t want to leave everything to chance and so browsed various online recommendations from the likes of the London Evening Standard, The Arts Desk, the Guardian, the Independent, the Times, Chortle and various others.
I wasn’t particularly interested in seeing established performers that I already knew — or could probably go and seek out on tour or in London in the near future. The type of act I was most interested in were those who were “emerging” — those gathering a reputation and who were on an upward trajectory. I also wanted to see at least as many women performers as men,
I’m not a reviewer but I’ll try to sum up my thoughts about the performers I saw in a couple of posts following this one. Overall, I was pretty satisfied with my choices, although it felt a little like sticking a pin in the catalogue. Many of my decisions were driven by time. As you may expect, the most established acts tended to play in the 8/9pm slots — so any sensible up-and-coming act would work around that and either go for a later or earlier slot. Because I was looking at the emerging acts, my most difficult decisions were around who I’d see at 4-7pm — and there were so many that clashed or had too little time to travel between venues.
In the end, I enjoyed a very concentrated programme of shows that took in many of the most atmospheric comedy venues — especially those in the arches of the North/South and George IV Bridges — like the Caves, Monkey Barrel and Cabaret Voltaire.
Not having visited before, I didn’t realise that many of the countless venues were repurposed teaching spaces from Edinburgh University. Lining up for a show at the “George Square Studios” was a little like the last time I waited outside a university examination room (actually only about ten years ago before any comments about long memories!).
Maybe it was the brevity of my visit or that I didn’t venture too far out of the main Old Town venues but I was surprised at the corporate feeling of the Fringe — most performers that came to my attention (either personally or via posters) were linked to promoters or groups like Soho Theatre. (I go to Soho Theatre quite a lot but I know where to find them the rest of the year.)
I had the possibly naive notion that there might even be Open Mic events that could be rolled-up to on the night. Perhaps there are but I didn’t come across any. Given the performer to venue ratio, it seems that the venues have the upper hand — and many in the centre had at least seven or eight different performances during a single day.
But my time in Edinburgh didn’t completely pass without me enjoying a bit of the limelight. I went along to Naomi McDonald’s show Copycat — it was unscheduled and driven purely by her posters (see below). I was picked out of the audience and spent a few minutes on stage being a straight-man to a selection of Naomi’s character impressions.
Naomi is a superb vocal mimic — particularly when she sings — and I thoroughly enjoyed her show and the large and varied cast of characters of whom she performs.
Over the spring I took the brilliant Logan Murray’s stand-up course and met a dozen or so fantastic comedians and made some wonderful friends — and we continue to meet up afterwards.
The course ended with a showcase evening at the excellent Museum of Comedy, which was videoed and very generously shared by Mandy Moore.
Here’s my bit — I’m managing to trim myself down to five minutes a bit better these days. It appeared to go down quite well with the audience on the night. I have to credit the amazingly supportive Logan with quite a few of the jokes, having had a one-to-one session with him in the run-up to the show.
I’d recommend Logan’s course to anyone — and obviously many people have done so as they’re invariably sold out several months ahead. However, he’s hilarious to work with and an irrepressible source of jokes.