In January, I tasked myself with seeing as much comedy as I possibly could, and to eventually get up on stage and perform myself. But as the first month drew to a close, things were starting to go badly…
I’d hit a wall. The constant late nights were starting to take their toll, and I was beginning to wonder if this quest I’d embarked upon was at all worth it. I didn’t want to give it up four weeks in, but at the same time I was struggling to see another option. Oh, if only there was someone I could talk to who might understand what I was going through…
My first gig of the week was Dave Gorman, performing his Sit Down, Pedal, Pedal, Stop And Stand Up show at the Hammersmith Apollo. Over the last decade, Gorman has joined the ranks of the great British storytellers, with tales of how he travelled the globe in search of other Dave Gormans, or tried to meet a string of Googlewhacks. This, however, is his return to straight stand-up. There are no tales of obsession to be found here.
Only, that’s not quite true. Gorman may not have clocked up so many air miles for this latest tour, but his obsessive spirit is undiminished. Whether talking of his penchant for practical jokes or making jokes about maths and carrot cake, it’s the minutiae which really get to him, and which he uses to create clever and well-observed material. And the storyteller is never far away. One sequence, revolving around Gorman’s quest to come up with ideas for the show, lasts around twenty minutes, and despite its far smaller scope, is every bit as compelling as one of his globe-trotting stories.
While Gorman excels when on more familiar territory, his footing seems less unsure when walking the path of the traditional stand-up comedian. The first half of the show has an awful lot of shorter jokes, many of which just don’t seem to be particularly strong by the time he gets to the punchline (and often this felt like it took much longer than it should have, thanks to his more conversational style), and which often felt just a little obvious. As a storyteller, Gorman is hilarious. As a regular comic, he’s… well, regular.
The second half of the show brings us the full Gorman, the one we’ve come to know and love. It would be unfair of me to spoil any of the tricks he has up his sleeve, but he knows what his audience wants, and boy, do they get it. Gorman’s clearly having much more fun on this safer ground, and it shows. With the audience eating out of the palm of his hand, he was able to pull off some stunning surprises, and also demonstrate his mastery of the callback. When a denouement to something from much earlier in the show arrives, as it does a few times, it’s devastatingly effective, and shows all the planning I’d expect from a fellow Maths graduate. While there’s an uneasy balance between the quicker jokes and the storytelling, this is still a show well worth seeing, if only for the journey you’ll go on when you do.
One of the few advantages of being sat in Row Z (and thus unable to see much more than a small blur on stage. I can’t say I’m a fan of big venues) was that, when Gorman dashed out to the foyer to sign merchandise, I was one of the first to get to him. And since this is, as I mentioned, a man with no small amount of experience in obsessive quests like mine was fast becoming, I took the opportunity to ask him if he had any advice for those moments when I just want to give up. His response? “Work out why you’re doing it in the first place.”
I could, at this point, launch into a deep psychological evaluation of myself and the ways in which I use comedy to compensate from the things missing from my life, but it’d take up valuable word count and make the ladies reading this less likely to want to date me. Instead, I’ll just say that he was right. I entered into this for two reasons: I love comedy, and I want to perform some myself. But I’d been going to comedy gigs for four nights a week on a regular basis, and spending another evening writing it all up. I’d made some notes for my own material, but I’d not touched the notepad since then. And frankly, familiarity breeds contempt. I’m doing this because I love comedy, and the last thing I want to do is end up hating it.
So for that reason, I’m setting myself a new rule: No more than three comedy gigs a week. Instead, the fourth night must be spent trying to further my ambition in some way, be it writing or (in time) performing. That would have to wait, though, because I already had my tickets for this week’s gigs.
I’d spent mercifully little time in Camden before I began this column, but on Tuesday I found myself being dragged back there to see Robin Ince perform at the Etcetera Theatre, the lovely small venue (a definite contrast from the hulking Apollo) where I’d previously seen Josie Long. The night was billed as a work in progress, and this was no exaggeration. Using a pile of postcards on which he’d scribbled a series of sentences and half-thoughts, Ince improvised over an hour’s material, presumably hoping to find some gold for use in future shows.
In my first column, I compared Ince to an English lecturer, with his academic manner and duffel coat. Based on his performance here, I’d like to change that to philosophy lecturer. This is clearly a passion of his, as at least a third of the cards seemed to contain various philosophical ideas and quirks to be expanded upon. Another third were of a political bent, with the remainder focussing on life’s eccentricities and minor irritations.
In the hands of a less skilled comedian, this would have been a disaster. However, Ince managed to talk around sometimes quite heavy topics with a trademark lightness of touch, managing to appeal to the audience while not dumbing down on the subject. It’s possible that he would have difficulty with some of this material when faced with a broader crowd than his generally middle-class fanbase, but here he was in his element, rambling and ranting with apparent ease through the 60-minute running time (and then some).
The only real disappointment of the evening was the show’s shortness. Robin had only made his way through a fraction of the postcards by the time he wrapped up, and there was a sense that he could’ve finished them off without breaking a sweat. While it’s fair to say that Ince did inevitably wander down a few comedy cul-de-sacs, he’s aware enough as a performer not to linger in them for too long. It was a brave and fun experiment, and one I’d like to see attempted by more comics of Ince’s calibre.
The next evening, I found myself at the Tabernacle in Notting Hill, a strangely charming venue which feels like a cross between a village hall and the ballroom of a cruise liner. Taking charge of the evening’s seemingly endless line-up of comics was MC Fergus Craig. With a hint of Neil Patrick Harris about him, Craig ushered proceedings along in a relaxed and friendly manner. The task of the compere is often a thankless one, but Craig seemed to be enjoying himself as he toyed with combining a string of different accents to great effect.
The first act on stage was Paul McCaffrey, whose material covered well-trodden ground. Routines about the queues for cash machines and the fallacies of advertising slogans didn’t seem to add anything particularly new (“You don’t have to be a pilot to fly in the RAF’… Yes, you bloody do!”), but his delivery gave the material more oomph (technical term) than perhaps it deserved. A very considered performance, McCaffrey made liberal use of pauses to get the maximum impact from his words, and although at times I found myself wishing he’d go a bit faster, it was clearly an effective (and finely-honed) technique.
Next to come through the revolving comedy door was Will Andrews, a semi-character act who took to the stage with false nerves, and stammered his way through his first few jokes. I have to admit, I initially found this more frustrating than amusing, but am nonetheless expecting to have a very similar act when I take to the stage myself in the next month or two. Andrews’ act soon went from the ridiculous to the sublime, however, when he pulled out records from US children’s television stalwart Mr Rogers and the UK’s own Ed ‘Stewpot’ Stewart, adding hilarity to the horrors that lay in wait. Andrews’ act is currently quite an uneven one, but when he’s good, he’s wonderful.
The third act was political comedian and podcaster Andy Zaltzman. I’ve remarked previously that Robin Ince is a comic who has the potential to lose his audience with his highbrow material, and I saw it happen here with Zaltzman. When he came on and started eloquently ranting about politics and current affairs, many seemed to shut down. It’s hard (and would be unfair) to form an opinion of his act based on that one gig, but I’d be interested to see him perform in an environment where the audience were expecting (and anticipating) his act.
Coming in a respectable fourth place was Angelos Epithemiou, Dan Renton Skinner’s socially inept burger van owner, who will be familiar to viewers of BBC2’s Shooting Stars. Epithemiou cuts a strangely compelling figure, tragic and absurd as he tries to keep order and tell his three prepared jokes. He’s also rather intimidating, creating a palpable trepidation amongst the crowd. But, rest assured, it’s funny. It’s a slow burner, and once again, I don’t think he got the reaction he deserved from the lacklustre audience, but as the eternally frustrated Epithemiou bumbles, mumbles and occasionally dances through his set, you can’t help but fall in love with him. Or at the very least, pity him.
Bringing the night to a close was sketch trio Pappy’s. It’s always an odd experience seeing sketches acted out on bare stages with only a minimum of costumes and props, and Pappy’s may have benefitted from a higher budget, but they’re a gleefully silly act, with sketches including a pair of musical old men and a relay race with a dinosaur, and a finale that will haunt my nightmares for years to come.
Despite a few bumps and uneven moments, it had been a good week. And I was starting to meet people, too. So far there was fellow DoG-er Barry and his wonderful friends, Danni, a charming poet who sat with me at the Robin Ince gig, and the lovely Sara, a fellow comedy nut whom I met at the Tabernacle gig. And going further back, there’s Kate and Coryn, whom I’d met through comedy shortly before all this started. So, hello to all of you, if you’re reading this!
I’m seeing some amazing comics, and meeting some great new people. Why would I possibly want to give up now when there’s so much more to do?
Join me next week as I discover that ladies can be funny too, I stroke a pussy, and I inch closer to that inevitable restraining order from Richard Herring.
At the end of Week 5:
Number of comedians seen: 56 Amount of money spent on tickets: £145 Number of comedians remaining on The List: 34 Number of copies of Schweitzer’s The Decay And The Restoration Of Civilization received: 1 (A no-prize for the first person to guess which comedian handed me that one)