Strange Gigs

 

 

 

 

Picture from: http://bit.ly/NjTfat

Picture from:
http://bit.ly/NjTfat

With Boycott & Aggers

No doubt we all consider other lives we might have led. What if I had accepted that offer to train as a teacher when I was 24 and appeared to have few other prospects? Maybe I would now be a head teacher in, say, South Yorkshire with a wife who is a nurse and a regular part in the village panto?

Whatever other job I might have done I doubt it would be as varied and faintly ridiculous as the one that is being a comedian. As evidence of this let me list 5 of the gigs I did in the January that has recently floated off down the swollen river.

January 19.   Arthur Smith’s walking tour of Soho. I meet my audience in Soho gardens and take them off round the thronging streets where they pass a man in a tree, a couple snogging vigorously at every street corner they pass, a chorus line singing ‘Happy days’, a man dressed as a banana and, er, Paul Merton. I had planned the first 2 of these but the others have arisen by chance. Back in the gardens I signify the end of the walk by dancing dervishly in my new silver onesie.

Jan 22nd.       I have agreed to do a ten minute spot at the Comedy Cafe in London for an audience of French people. Thus I must deliver my set en francais. As it turns out  je me debrouille.

 Jan 23rd.      A late booking this, but one that intrigues. I journey to Birmingham Symphony Hall to join Sir Geoffrey Boycott and Jonathan ‘Aggers’ Agnew to talk about cricket and the disastrous Ashes tour that is just dwindling to a dismal halt. I try out a few shots in front of Sir Geoffrey who is suitably unimpressed…..

Jan 24th        MC-ing a comedy night in my local school (Ravenstone Primary School) for the parents, many of whom I have passed in Balham as they hurry to collect their kids. Tonight, however, they are all pissed and extremely aimiable. They make a great crowd and me and the other 2 comics (Ivo Graham and Jo Caulfield) all have a brilliant gig. It is nice to have a 2-minute walk home after too.

Jan 26th      Compering the NATYs – the New Act of the Year Awards in the Bloomsbury Theatre in London. This is the oldest and most respected of the New Act competitions and the list of its finalists contains many names of comics who have since become famous. There is a superbly wide selection of styles but most of the audience agree with the judges’ choice for the coveted title, ‘Top of the Bill’ (the word ‘winner’ seems to have banned), Alasdair Beckett-King, a suave stand up with some killer lines.

Jan 28th    Lunchtime finds me in the downstairs bar at the Prince of Wales theatre where I do a turn to kick off the Critic’s Circle Theatre Awards. There are some distinguished actors and all the number one critics who nod sagely when I say that being a theatre critic these days is like having Kim Jong-Un as your nephew.

 

So that was January. In February my itinerary is more predictable – I am doing Arthur Smith Sings Leonard Cohen (Volume Two) at the Soho theatre from Feb 16th for 2 weeks and, although that Yorkshire panto would no doubt have been fun, I am pleased to be a stand up comic with all its ludicrous adventures. Not too long to the bluebells now….

 

I am a stand up

I am a stand up (from my autobiography My Name is Daphne Fairfax)

ARTHUR SMITH SINGS LEONARD COHEN (VOLUME TOO) AT EDINBURGH FRINGE PLEASANCE CABARET BAR : 3-18 AUGUST 2013

ARTHUR SMITH SINGS LEONARD COHEN (VOLUME TOO) AT SOHO THEATRE – JAN/FEB 2013

I am a stand-up comic. Even now, after a couple of thousand gigs, making this statement gives me a bristle of pride and a bump of self-importance. ‘That must be the hardest job in the world,’ people say routinely to stand-ups. It is not of course, but it is the most singular job in show business and, in some ways, the most glamorous. The stand-up comedian is a solitary warrior, ignoring the theatre’s fourth wall in a direct Brechtian assault on his (or her) audience, the one performer whose success or failure is determined instantly and audibly. He does not sit down in timid informality, he stands up, like you stand up against bullies or for your rights. He has come to banish cant, bullshit, hypocrisy and the straight face. He does not hide behind costumes, music, cameras, props or masks, he relies on no-one but himself, he is not edited or enhanced after the event, he strides onto the middle of the stage and addresses the crowd, like a politician with no party on his back, like a preacher without God, a gladiator come to slay a roomful of lions and Christians. He ‘kills’, he ‘rips the room apart,’ he ‘storms it’ and the world applauds at his feet. I am a stand-up comic. Who would not be proud to be able to stand up and say that?

 

But when he fails, when no laughs come, when he ‘dies’, ‘goes down the toilet,’ why then he is an arse and he must get the first train out of town. The stand-up is a con artist who will dance to any tune that gets him a gig and pander to any prejudice that keeps him in the spotlight. He distributes prejudice with a smile, disseminates the lie that laughter redeems or that it is, as Nietzsche said, ‘the one true metaphysical consolation,’ when really it is a way of hiding from the serious business of life – the tragedy of existence.

 

The first time I tried stand-up I died. I also went down the pan at gigs numbers five, twelve, thirty-seven and so on, until just two weeks ago when, in a large, bland businessmen’s hotel near Derby, my quips left a roomful of car salesmen indifferent to the point of belligerence. To add to my shame, the shape of the room meant that after my public humiliation, when every part of me screamed to get out quick, I had to skirt around the edge of my former audience to reach the exit. They turned in their seats to consider me. Every comic knows this walk of shame. You try to avoid eye contact with anyone. You know what they are thinking; they are thinking you are a useless, unfunny cunt. They are wondering how much you’ve been paid for pissing them off  and how the hell you ever persuaded someone to book you. Like the golden-duck batsman’s long walk back to the pavilion, or the defendant’s grim passage from the dock to the cells, the cry of `take him down` pounding in his ears, it is a head-down procession of despair.

In stand up comedy when you die you are a zero but when you kill you are, briefly, immortal.

Mostly, though, it’s somewhere in the middle.

 

Arthur Smith Sings Leonard Cohen (Volume Too)  Soho Theatre, London – 16th Feb to 2nd March 2014

 

Glasto

Apart from a marathon compering session, I did 2 solo performances at Glastonbury last week, both of which were utterly different from any other gig I have ever done. I arrive at the first in the backstage bar of one of the bigger arenas to find a band rocking away and dancing going on. Oh dear – when people are grooving they do not wish to sit down and listen to stand-up comedy. There is an audience to the side of the stage but facing it only seven punters, 3 of whom are, damnit, children.

I start with a couple of ancient gags which go down tolerably well but I can see the children are already bored. Scanning through it swiftly, I realize that nearly all my material will either be incomprehensible or too rude for them. So I take a chance and offer 50p for one of the kids to come up on stage and talk to me. 10-year old Olivia is soon standing next to me answering my questions. ‘Are you enjoying yourself?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Do you like your tent?’ ‘No.’ ‘Do you only answer questions with a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’? ‘ ‘Yes’ She has a rather stern delivery and gets a laugh with each monosyllable. Soon her best friend Isabel has joined us and proves to have an extremely charming and infectious laugh. Olivia and Isabel are enjoying themselves and so is everyone else.

‘Who does your mum look like?’ I ask Olivia.

‘Beyonce,’ she says. Her mum whoops and comes up to wave.

‘And who do I look like?’

Olivia scrutinizes me intently.

‘Robbie Williams,’ she says.

 

Never work with children and animals but, if you do, step back and let them get the laughs.

 

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2 nights later and I have a half-hour spot in the Cabaret tent, a duty I have discharged successfully in the past. On warm  afternoons you sometimes find the audience is sparse or still recovering from the previous night ,so I am pleased to find I am due on at 9.45. Unfortunately, at the same time, in some larger venue on the other side of the site, a band called the Rolling Stones are playing.

You may be surprised to learn that many more festival-goers attend the Stones gig than mine –  or you may not be surprised. There are about 20 people in the very large Cabaret tent, several of whom are hopelessly pissed. Carl Donnelly, most excellent MC, proposes that he jolly some of the audience onto the stage before I come on. Why not? When I stride up to the microphone I find 6 people sitting at my feet, and so I decide to declare myself the new Messiah and the 6 as my apostles.

I can’t remember a great deal about the next 25 minutes except that I soon ceded the Messiahship to Dave, whose message was that we should all be drunk and enjoy Glastonbury. Later I got 2 of my followers to have a gladiatorial sword fight using 2 rolled-up copies of the Daily Mail. I seem to recall that Dave was killed in this combat so I am not sure who is the Messiah now. Was it Alice the stoned astrophysicist, or Blue, the self-possessed boy I took to be a girl? It’s all a bit blurry now – as Glastonbury immediately becomes once you have returned from the mayhem and had that oh so fabulous bath.

Thank you Glastonbury for another crazed time with old friends and new. And thanks to Olivia and Isabel, the best new double act around.

The Sun (*)

The sun (*)

A savage review is much more entertaining for the reader than an admiring one; the little misanthrope in each of us relishes the rubbishing of someone else. But however much I enjoy it in others, I find it hard to be a rude critic myself. Even after some bum-murderingly boring play I think, “At least they turned up and had a go.” Wrath should be reserved for important things.

Today though, I choose vitriol.

The show in question, which has been running longer than The Mousetrap, has been in the news again lately, generating endless crass conversations. The sun has turned up for a brief run at a few venues around the country, and I for one am sick of its predictable, pathetic routine.

It always opens in darkness with a mob complaining. Then a suggestion that the sun might be coming transforms the mood into one of happy anticipation.

The macabre figure of the doctor warns them it will kill them, but they ignore him and run off to buy new clothes. Then the sun makes its big entrance and we’re all meant to be impressed by the clever lighting tricks.

Yes, of course it created all life-forms and keeps us alive, but haven’t we heard enough about all that? If the sun is so great, why are we prevented from looking directly at it? What has it got to hide?

It is a very arrogant character compared with its rival the moon. Where the moon invites the stars out and plays among them, the sun obliterates them, jealous of their greater but more distant strength. The capricious moon will appear during the day, but the sun never surprises us by showing up at night. The moon puts on an elegant show, different every time in shape, colour and nuance.

The sun is just a round, yellow thing with one trick. It continually comes out and goes in like some vacillating homosexual. Its closing number, Sunset, always peters out after a few minutes.

The PR people know that recent productions in Britain have been feeble and sporadic. For years they’ve been promising the global-warming version, where the central figure is more brilliant and the doctor has a much bigger part but it seems some Gulf Stream subplot has ruined that. Recent shows seem to have conformed to the same tired old formula that we’ve been watching for years but evrytime a little worse. In short, the sun is crap.

It won’t I think be appearing at the Edinburgh Festival this year and if it does it won’t be welcome in my show either – but you are.

Arthur Smith sings Leonard Cohen (volume too)

And yet – we’ve been friends for a long time and I owe it a lot. So let’s forget about this production and consider future ones, which will surely be passionate, engaged and full-blooded.

Blog

So me and a younger stand-up are sharing a bill and comparing heckling scenarios in the dressing room before the off; I describe a middle-aged comedian I saw recently whose volume of delivery was in inverse proportion to the strength of his material. In the middle of his set a woman’s serious voice cut through the silence that followed one of his ‘gags’ – “You know, I think you really need to think about the way your life is going.” Ouch! She was rubbishing not only his act, but his entire existence.

My young colleague winces, laughs and tells me about a show during which a woman threw a glass at him.

“Oo, nasty!” I am sympathetic. “What led up to that?”

“It was a table of drunken girls on a hen night. They were just talking all through my act. I managed to quieten them down, apart from one who just wouldn’t shut up, so I said to her, ‘You’re the sort of woman who makes domestic abuse possible.’ She was the one who threw a glass at me.”

I say nothing but in truth I am appalled at his presumption of innocence in this situation. I do not believe it is acceptable to throw heavy objects at entertainers – but equally I do not believe his put-down line was anything other than crass, witless and offensive. Yeah, let’s all have a laugh about men beating up their partners. I consider asking him if, had the heckler been black, he might have said, “you’re the sort of man who made slavery possible.” But I don’t.

“That’s the thing,’” he adds, “there’s no line with me.” He says this sentence with a thinly-disguised tone of smugness and pride, as though he has just uttered the phrase, “That’s the thing with me – I have spent all my life struggling on behalf of freedom of speech.”

And what do you think of his ad lib? It is entirely possible that you are in accord with Dan Dan domestic-abuse-man (as he shall be known). ‘Hey, it’s just a joke, doesn’t mean he approves of domestic abuse, we’re all grown ups.’ It has been remarked (not least, of course in the Guardian) that among the recent crop of new male comics, not to mention the current crop of young men, there is a rebirth of old school sexism. Why is this? Is it a reaction against the perceived ‘political correctness’ of my generation of comics? Is it in imitation of the Jimmy Carrs who do flippant rape material? Is it to do with porn on the internet or video games or magazines like Nuts and Loaded ?

I watch Dan’s opening spot of MC-ing. It mostly involves him asking women in the audience if they are single and then dispensing low grade suggestive smut in response. To be fair to him he seems to get away with it, which I find somewhat depressing. He does a bit of material about how he inserted chocolate between the cheeks of a woman’s bottom so that on awakening she thought she had had an accident. Why a woman? The joke, such as it is, would be the same if it were a man’s bottom, wouldn’t it? Then he gets the men in the audience to growl and then the women to giggle. He observes, “sounds a bit rapey doesn’t it?” ‘Rapey’ – is this the most repulsive new word in the English language?

I return to the dressing room. I’ll read the paper til I’m on……..

 

Machynlleth Comedy Festival

Warning: if you are not already wearing one, and are intending to read to the end of this blog, then you now need to go and find a hat to put on. Go on off you go.

Machynlleth, you may not be surprised to learn, is in Wales and accordingly takes nearly 150 hundred years to reach from London. If you go by rail the last century is liable to be spent on a train so packed and grubby that you may, like me, wish to tweet, ‘Going to cry me Arriva.’

On arriva-l, however, I was cheered at the compliment I received from a chap in the post office on my pronunciation of the name of his town. It wasn’t luck – I had taken a BBC course called Learn How to Say Machynlleth. The key 3 points are:

1. You need a lot of phlegm in stock to get the ‘ch’ right.

2. Say the ‘nll’ as you would the ‘ntl’ of the word ‘antler’.

3. Do not be afraid of the fact that the middle syllable sounds a lot like ‘cunt’.

The town playing host to the comedy weekend is a small settlement of slatey houses in Powys and contains no Starbucks, no WH Smith, no Macdonalds and no Tescos – just the beginning of its agreeable qualities. The inhabitants are a good-natured mix of friendly locals and free-thinking hipsters from around the country. It is very easy to find a nice cheesecloth shirt to buy and I did.

I was there to record proceedings for Radio 4 Extra’s The Comedy Club (of which I am a regular presenter) and to do my one man show. I was also hoping to sneek off for some quality time, rambling and smoking in the gorgeous, sheep-spotted surrounding hills. All these things I achieved with such great satisfaction that I am already planning a return visit next year. There were dozens of acts on in numerous venues of varying eccentricity and the population of the town doubled to 4000 during the weekend the festival was running, as punters, mostly alerted on social media, flooded into town and pitched tent in a handy field.

Machynlleth is not as other festivals for all sorts of reasons: the happy absence of agents, PR people, TV producers, journalists and all the other guff that goes to make so many festivals into corporate events meant that the comics were not fighting for attention or fretting about money and reviews. The atmosphere was relaxed and outdoors-y, seeming to encourage an air of experimentation and creativity. You could engage with your audience and with the other comics in a way that is not possible at big festivals.

Apart from my scheduled stuff, I got to take part in a nude art show, recite poetry on the hill overlooking the town (which, magnificently, displayed a Machynlleth sign a la Hollywood), see a showcase of brilliant young comics, get a tour of the town (once, long ago, the home of the Welsh Parliament), hang with the drunks at the Bowls Club, become embroiled in a hen party, flirt with the ladies in the café opposite the clock tower and do a turn on a shed artfully placed in the broad sandy estuary of the nearby River Dyfi.

Throughout it all, there was a feeling of solidarity among the acts that reminded me a bit of my early Edinburghs when it was still small enough that all the performers could meet after their shows at the Fringe Club and subsequently the Gilded Balloon in Cowgate. If the Edinburgh Fringe is now a pressure cooker, the Machynlleth festival is the sun coming out.

It was all dreamed up by Henry Widdecombe, a sometime stand up, who, upon first going to the Edinburgh Festival, made a list of all the things about it that he didn’t like, and then sought to eliminate them from his own version. So then I say, everybody…… to Henry and to Emma Butler, to all the volunteers they recruited, to Machynlleth and to all its people, I say…… hats off. Come on hats off!

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I was sad when it ended (never the case at Edinburgh) but pleased to stay an extra morning to take a hike into the hills. Enlivened, encouraged and enthralled by my weekend I put my iPod on real loud and danced on the summit of a Welsh mountain to the indifference of a dozen sheep.