Near the end of January, I decided to try and see as much live comedy as I could during 2010, and write all about it for Den Of Geek. As well as seeing a lot of amazing acts (and discovering some new ones), I hope to eventually take to the stage myself. I also have a ‘Bucket List’ of 40 comedians I really want to see perform live. As I began Week Four, that number stood at 36. But, like the Cylons before me, I had a plan…I love terrible movies; there’s nothing I enjoy more than sitting back and mocking the efforts of others. So when, for some unknown reason, I found myself single on Valentine’s Day (that’s right, ladies. Get in touch! I own at least three sonic screwdrivers), I decided to spend the evening with some like-minded people at Bad Film Club, for a timely showing of the 2006 gross-out comedy Basic Instinct 2. The event is presided over by two maestros of the mediocre, Nicko and Joe, armed with microphones, laser pointers and a scathing wit as they apply a healthy dose of scorn to the film.
This isn’t a new idea, of course. US show Mystery Science Theater 3000 ran with this concept for ten years, wisecracking through video nasties such as Manos: The Hands Of Fate and Earth Vs The Spider. However, while that show was heavily scripted, Nicko and Joe are more relaxed in their approach. This is more like a chatty DVD commentary than a finely-tuned and rehearsed gagfest. This isn’t to say they’re not hugely funny, though. The pair have a clear passion for the contents of Hollywood’s reject bin and manage to turn pointing out a film’s foibles and mocking its actors into an art form.
The other advantage to this approach is that the audience are invited to get involved and shout out anything that occurs to them. It’s an approach with a few risks, but one that helps create a community spirit within the room. And with a film like Basic Instinct 2, that’s what’s needed. Dodgy acting, an utterly baffling plot and several unwelcome nude scenes from a 48-year-old Sharon Stone make Nicko and Joe’s help in surviving the experience both essential and hilarious.
Oh, and they handed out cookies to all the single people in the audience. I was never going to be able to give them a bad review after that. Other comics, please take note.
On Tuesday, the plan was to see Tim Key in the West End, thus crossing another name off my list. However, upon ringing the theatre that morning to book a ticket, I was informed that the show had sold out for its entire run. Who’d have thought that winning the Edinburgh Comedy Award and having regular TV exposure would boost sales? Clearly, not me. Have I learned my lesson? Almost certainly not.
Disheartened but determined, I took a random spin on the Chortle Wheel of Fate, and found myself in a small Camden venue seeing a preview of Diane Spencer’s show, Lost In The Mouth Specific. This was the first time I had heard of Spencer, because, though raised in Somerset, she’s spent most of the last four years performing in New Zealand. In that time, she’s gained a reputation for being a bit of a potty mouth. In 2009, she was described by one reviewer as a British Sarah Silverman.
In Mouth Specific, Diane looks at the moments in life when the universe throws you a curveball, as well as the ones when it feels like the universe is letting you know you’re on the right track. It’s quite a life-affirming show in places and seems to mark the start of a shift in tone away from the more offensive material she’s previously become defined by.
On stage, there’s something of Miranda Richardson’s Queen Elizabeth from Blackadder II about Diane Spencer (and not just the hair colour). At first glance, she seems quite girlish and vulnerable but will then, without a moment’s warning, come out with something so utterly outrageous that you can’t help but laugh. This dichotomy runs through the show like the lettering in Blackpool rock and works both to its advantage and its detriment.
The offensive material works well in offsetting the more sentimental aspects of the show, but can also result in some abrupt and unsettling tonal shifts. A sweet tale in which Spencer sees a rainbow after a breakup, for instance, would be followed by a story in which she strains so hard while on the toilet that she breaks a blood vessel (and which included a mental image I’ve not been able to get out of my head since). Both segments were well-crafted and amusing enough, but it’s the sort of lurch that leaves the audience feeling somewhat disoriented.
While some of the segues may need ironing out, this is a confidently delivered and uplifting show, and Diane Spencer is a friendly, funny and refreshing comic voice. Just be prepared for the filth! She’s also another comedian who I can place firmly in the ‘geek-friendly’ category, with a smattering of Star Wars and Star Trek references, and what must surely be the best routine about string theory on the circuit at present. Sadly, for any UK readers, she’s no longer in the country (making this gig a rare treat), but I’d strongly recommend that any readers in Melbourne during the International Comedy Festival pay her a visit.
Thursday’s Tomorrow People-style jaunt took me to the recording of The Bubble, BBC Two’s new topical comedy show. The premise, for the unaware, is that three celebrities are locked away in a house for three days without television, radio or the Internet. Having been cut off from the news, they are then whizzed to a studio to be quizzed by David Mitchell on a series of news stories, some of which are fake, and some of which actually happened.
The guests on the first show were comedians Frank Skinner and Reginald D Hunter, and comedy vacuum Victoria Coren. The recording was a hugely entertaining affair. David Mitchell and Frank Skinner spent much of the evening sparking off one another; Reginald D Hunter didn’t say much, but he had his own strange thing going on (at times, I wasn’t sure whether he was playing up to the camera or getting genuinely frustrated); and Victoria Coren was there as well.
It was a great evening, and possibly one of the best recordings I’ve attended. If nothing else, it left me with a renewed interest in seeing Skinner perform live and with a deep hope that David Mitchell will eventually take to the solo stage.
It was a bit of a surprise, then, to note that Mitchell and Skinner had surprisingly little to contribute to the final edit, aired the following day. Certainly some of the banter had been unbroadcastable in the timeslot, but there was more than enough decent quality material that the producers could have used but chose not to.
Almost all of Hunter’s contribution remained intact, having been quite small (but entertaining) to begin with, and much airtime seemed to be handed to Coren, who, joking aside, will be the first to admit that she is not a comedian and at times during the recording was clearly a bit out of her depth. Early reviews of the show haven’t been glowing and I have to wonder whether, in different scissorhands, first impressions may have been a little more favourable.
My final trip of the week was, mercifully, just around the corner from my house to the weekly Downstairs at the Drayton event in Ealing (I’m moving out in a week’s time, so any potential stalkers had best get a move on. Though if you’re female, then, really, all you need to do is email me and I’ll give you my address. Even if you don’t ask for it). The evening’s headline act was Reginald D Hunter, meaning I’d at least get to cross one name off my list (the recording didn’t count, as neither he nor Skinner had actually performed standup).
Running the evening, loosely speaking, was regular compere Phil Zimmerman. While he exploded onto the stage with bundles of energy, and came across as likeable enough, it was perhaps too energetic a performance for the evening’s crowd (many of whom, of course, were there for the laid-back Hunter), and while he was clearly putting his all into trying to engage with the audience (including, at one point, dressing up as the Wolfman), the response was often little more than polite laughter.
It had been a long week and I was tired, both physically and mentally. As such, the evening’s other comics passed by in a blur of mediocrity. There was Meryl O’Rourke, who compensated for her obvious nerves by resorting to a slightly shouty delivery of what seemed to be needlessly contentious material. She was followed by Roderick Johnson, who hadn’t performed in a while and it showed. He opened with material about paedophiles, sex and lesbians and seemed to add little originality to any of the subjects, though things did pick up towards the end with a song about Legoland. Things picked up a little with penultimate act Liam Speirs, a Scottish comic whose smiling enthusiasm raised the audience’s flagging spirits and who covered a multitude of topics such as dancing, animal mating rituals and crying children with welcome brevity.
Reginald D Hunter finally arrived sometime after 11pm and was worth the wait. Some of his material, such as the differences between the UK and America, and the dating game, was covering well-trodden ground, but Hunter managed to throw enough twists into the tales to make them feel fresh and new. It really is true that no subject is necessarily too familiar to an audience. You just have to make sure you put your own spin on it.
On stage, Hunter is truly unflappable; even when getting worked up about something, his laid-back voice and the twinkle in his eye let you know that he’s refusing to take anything too seriously.
Hunter is another comic who has his share of geek-friendly material. In one sequence he talks about his love of Star Trek and his experiences watching the new movie (as well as his compulsion to shout things out during it – a man after my own heart). I have to wonder, having seen more than a few comics do nerdy pieces over the last month, if perhaps the geeks have inherited the comedy scene. Though, as geeks go, they probably don’t get much cooler than this.
Reginald D Hunter was a superb climax to quite a mediocre evening, but I was still left with a nagging feeling in the pit of my stomach. Was seeing so much comedy in such a short space of time beginning to take the joy out of it for me? And where was I heading with this project, anyway? I’d been doing it for four weeks. Surely that was enough to make any point I’d been trying to make?
Had I reached the end of my comedy odyssey?
Find out next week, as I get some sage advice from the master of obsessive quests, and I check out Angelos Epithemiou, Pappy’s Fun Club, Andy Zaltzman and Robin Ince.
At the end of Week 4:
Number of comedians seen – 47 Amount of money spent on tickets – £105 Number of comedians remaining on The List – 35 Number of Richard Herring gigs attended this week – 0
If you want to send me suggestions for comedians to see, have any thoughts on the column, or just want to find out my address, then feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow me on Twitter.
- Pete’s Comedy Odyssey week 1: Richard Herring, Sarah Kendall, Greg Davies, Robin Ince, Brendan Burns, Andrew O’Neill
- Pete’s Comedy Odyssey week 2: Peter Serafinowicz, Andrew Collins and Richard Herring, Harry Hill, Bobby Bragg and Marcus Brigstocke
- Pete’s Comedy Odyssey: Nicola Bolsover, Geek Night Out, Helen Keen, Richard Herring, Josie Long