Pete’s Comedy Odyssey: Nicola Bolsover, Geek Night Out, Helen Keen, Richard Herring, Josie Long

Pete's adventures in comedy continue, as he checks out Geek Night Out, stalks Richard Herring, and catches Josie Long trying out new material...

Near the end of January, I set myself three rules: 1) I would see at least two live comedy events a week, 2) I would see at least two acts unfamiliar to me each week, and 3) I would write about it all for Den Of Geek. As well as seeing a lot of amazing acts, I hope to eventually take to the stage myself.

Last week, I added another rule: If I have an opportunity to see one of the comics on my ‘bucket list’, I must take it. However, this was mostly an excuse to go and see Marcus Brigstocke without feeling guilty about breaking Rule 2…As the third week of my adventure began, however, I did feel guilty. I’d found an excuse for breaking the rule, yes, but part of the reason for taking this whole thing on was to see new acts, ones I wouldn’t otherwise have known about. And so, after a day of letting this eat away at me, I ended up near Earl’s Court for a heat of the Laughing Horse New Act of the Year competition. Compered by Imran Yusuf, a man with seemingly boundless energy and a nice line in crowd banter, the night saw thirteen relative newcomers to the comedy world battle it out to make it through to the next round. It would be a lie to say that every act I saw that evening was fantastic; some were crude without the strength of material to back it up, while others were simply let down by nerves. (One man was only performing for the second time ever.) However, as a potential new act myself (it’d be nice to get to a point where I feel I can enter this contest next year), it would be unfair and mean-spirited to write about that at length here.

Instead, I’d rather mention a few of my personal favourites of the night, such as Lewis Charlesworth, who managed a polished five minutes on Bolton stereotypes; Richard Bowen, whose fantastically surreal material was delivered in a deadpan worthy of Jack Dee; or Luke Montague, whose Tourette’s was an integral and brilliant part of his set. 

For me, though, the highlight of the evening was Nicola Bolsover, who took to the stage in a colourful jumper to sing of her love for the actor Sean Bean (“Don’t call him ‘Seen Bean’ – that makes me mad.”). It was a wonderfully-crafted piece of obsession and, no doubt, a twisted mirror into the soul of many a DoG reader.

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It was a fun evening, and what struck me was how protected these acts were. Heckling was banned, and at one point the organiser approached me to check that I wasn’t stealing material (I had been making notes so I could remember who was who). I can only hope I end up in such nurturing venues when the time comes for me to try my hand. In fact, I was so inspired that I started to think about material, writing down a list of subjects I might want to try and mine for humour. However, with the list including such gems as “Grandad’s a Daily Mail reader” and “I am cool”, I sense that I may still be a little way off being ready.

My karmic balance well and truly restored, I headed for more familiar ground with my monthly trip to Geek Night Out, the comedy night for those of a nerdy disposition. Founded by comics Rob Deb and Paul Gannon, the evening is a place for comedians to showcase some of their geekier material, or even try out a new side to themselves.

Self-proclaimed ‘Dork Knight’ Deb took MC duties for the night, and did an excellent job of walking the line between full-on geekiness and accessibility for the portion of the audience who had no idea what they’d walked in on. With his Superman T-shirt and Bat Utility Belt that doesn’t quite fit, Deb is clearly “one of us”, meaning he can laugh at geekery in a way which is charmingly self-deprecating, rather than just plain mean.

Gannon, on the other hand, appears at first glance to be ‘normal’. It is only once he gets going with an illuminating trip through the history of 3D cinema or a summary of Lost in 60 seconds (take that, Reduced Shakespeare Company) that his geek credentials are clear for all to see. He and Deb make an excellent double act, and do a good job of curbing one another’s worst excesses.

Despite being a free evening, Geek Night Out usually pulls in a decent line-up from the circuit. If this month’s event were a Doctor Who episode, the tone word would have been ‘affable’, as embodied by first act, James Acaster. Looking like an amalgamation of 80s Grange Hill characters, Acaster took us back to his school days. He may not be about to break any boundaries with his act, but Acaster’s warmth and honesty make for a performance that is both funny and relatable.

Next up was John Gordillo, host of a short-lived BBC Choice topical programme and director of several of Eddie Izzard’s shows. Here he was trying out some new material, the set-piece of which being a mental illness leaflet found in his local library. While this may not seem like an immediate subject for comedy, Gordillo deftly deconstructed the pamphlet, with all the pedantry he could muster. In other hands this could have been rather predictable, but Gordillo always managed to avoid going down the most predictable route. I was greatly impressed, and am interested to see what he does with a full-length show.

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The final act of the night was Helen Keen, with excerpts from her 2008 Edinburgh show, It IS Rocket Science. With all the enthusiasm of a Blue Peter presenter, Keen took the audience on a whistlestop tour through the origins of space travel, focussing on three of the main players in the story. More of a lecture than an out-and-out standup performance, the set was more wry than hilarious. However, it was never less than entertaining, and there seemed to be genuine disappointment from the audience when her twenty minutes was up.

Geek Night Out is a great idea, and with no entrance fee you’re guaranteed to get value for money. However, it is my hope that the show develops the audience it deserves, as there was a feeling that acts were having to tone down the geekiness to play to a less knowledgeable crowd. If you want to go along, details of the next show can be found on the website at the bottom of the page.

It will come as no surprise to regular readers of this column that I count Richard Herring among my favourite comedians. Indeed, it’s a bit embarrassing that he has featured in both installments to date, as I am not a stalker; I just look like one. That said, it seemed only fair to complete the trilogy, so on Tuesday evening I went along to the Leicester Square Theatre to see his latest show, Hitler Moustache.

The premise of the show is simple. Annoyed that Charlie Chaplin’s toothbrush moustache has become so intrinsically linked with Hitler, Herring sets out to see if he can reclaim the moustache for comedy. To do this, he spent several months with one on his face (as Herring himself remarks, it’s a big commitment to make what is essentially quite a glib point), and this show documents his experiences.

It’s fair to say that Hitler Moustache is quite a different beast from Herring’s last few Edinburgh shows. Gone is much of the sexual humour, replaced by jokes about racism and the BNP. However, many of his other trademarks are still present and correct. Herring’s skill at subverting a point and taking it to its logical-but-absurd conclusion is on display throughout, his argument that racists are actually much closer to seeing the world as one race than non-racists being just one example of this. There’s also the now-customary imaginary conversation, which comes at one of the show’s most challenging moments.

Given its title and subject matter, Hitler Moustache is by no means a ‘safe’ comedy show. It has attracted its fair share of controversy in the press (Which clearly didn’t hurt ticket sales), and if you’re the sort of person who takes everything literally, then this is not the show for you. The show does straddle the border of what is offensive on a few occasions (the worst of which is very clearly signposted), but Herring’s liberal views are made very clear throughout. If you come away from Hitler Moustache thinking it’s in any way a racist show, then you’ve really missed the point.

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As with The Headmaster’s Son, Herring wears his heart on his sleeve. His discomfort at walking around with the toothbrush moustache is all too obvious (particularly when confronted with the idea of wearing the face fuzz at his parents’ wedding anniversary), and a look at Chaplin’s film The Great Dictator makes for a genuinely touching dénouement to the show.

There’s also clearly no joke intended when Herring berates the non-voters in the audience for allowing the BNP to win seats in the European elections. It’s an uncomfortable moment, but it’s clearly something about which Richard feels strongly, and it works surprisingly well in the context of the show.

It remains to be seen whether this marks a full-on shift in direction for Herring, but it’s a marvellous show that manages to take a look at a controversial subject matter in a clever and humorous way. For Edinburgh 2010, Richard will be re-working his 2001 show Christ On A Bike; I’ve already booked my ticket.

As a budding comic, Hitler Moustache definitely taught me one thing: nothing is off-limits when it comes to comedy. You’ve just got to be able to justify going to that place, both to yourself and your audience.

Thanks to fellow Den Of Geek writer Barry Donovan, I ended my week in a small Camden venue watching Josie Long trying out new material for her 2010 Edinburgh show. I had heard good things about her act, and I wasn’t disappointed. Long is a refreshingly optimistic voice among the cynics who populate the circuit. She bounces around the stage with an innocence and youthful exuberance that can’t help but leave you thinking that perhaps life is actually pretty good.

With six months to go, the show is still very much a work in progress, so it would be unfair to give it a proper review here, but even at this early stage there’s a lot to love. Loosely speaking, the show is about Josie’s attempts to change her life and generally find a place in the world as she tries to lose weight, find a role model, and talk to strangers more. Long’s naivety goes hand-in-hand with her tendency towards flights of fancy, and these are a joy to watch, whether she’s having a conversation with a drawing of a dead politician or becoming fascinated with a man who photographed his breakfasts every day for a year.

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Preview shows provide a fascinating glimpse into the way material is developed, and are a recommended experience for any comedy buff. And with a comedian as upbeat as Josie Long, seeing some parts of the show twice is far from a chore.

Number of comedians seen – 37 Amount of money spent on tickets – £85 Number of comedians remaining on the List – 36 Number of fascist moustaches acquired – 1

Join me next week as I see the same comedian two nights running (no, it’s not Richard Herring), I fail to see Tim Key, and the audience begs for Sharon Stone’s legs to close.

Details of upcoming Geek Night Out events can be found here, while a full list of Richard Herring’s tour dates is available here.