Pete’s Comedy Odyssey: Peter Serafinowicz, Andrew Collins and Richard Herring, Harry Hill, Bobby Bragg and Marcus Brigstocke

Pete continues his comedy travels, with his round-up of this week's gigs...

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 a week, and 3) I would write about it all for Den Of Geek. My hope is that along the way I’ll broaden my comedy horizons and finally get an act of my own together to take to the stage. The story continues, as we enter week two…

I began my week by meeting comedy legend (and the voice of Darth Maul, but we’ll forgive him that) Peter Serafinowicz at a DVD signing in London. The man was lovely, taking time to talk with everyone, even the eBay vulture in front of me who took about 30 items to get signed and used his young son, who clearly didn’t want to be there, as a tool to get as much done as possible before the manager intervened.

I kept it together in the presence of greatness, despite some awful blathering on my part about how I was cold, but not that cold, and it was okay because it was totally worth it (did I mention you’re great?). I even managed to crack a joke about The Room‘s Tommy Wiseau directing a Brian Butterfield biopic, which I think he appreciated (or at least he laughed politely at). In return I got some exciting Butterfield news – look out for an announcement from PS in the near future…

There’s no rest for the wicked, and I headed straight from the signing to my first actual comedy event of the week, the live recording of the 100th Collings and Herrin Podcast. For the unfamiliar (and where have you been?), broadcaster Andrew Collins and comedian Richard Herring (making his second consecutive appearance in this column; think of this as the middle installment of a trilogy) sit down in Richard’s attic and spend one hour, six minutes and thirty-six seconds dissecting the week’s news. There’s usually very little preparation gone into these podcasts, which is reflected in its hit-and-miss nature. However, when the pair are on form there’s a lot of brilliantly funny moments (and, indeed, Herring uses it as a testing ground for new jokes. It’s an interesting insight into the creative process), and the end result is rarely less than entertaining, even if not always hilarious. (The podcast itself was a riot, and you’ll find the link below.)

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The live shows are a different proposition to the regular podcasts, though. The audience gives the duo something to bounce off, and helps them better gauge when a section is working, and when to move on. While Herring uses the opportunity to become even cheekier than usual, jokingly (well, mostly jokingly!) insulting both audience members and Collins alike, it is, perhaps, Collins who benefits most from the live environment.

Though he is no stranger to comedy – he was a writer on sitcoms Grass and Not Going Out – Collins is not someone who would describe himself as a comedian. However, when placed in front of a receptive audience, he flourishes. You can actually see his confidence growing on stage, and at times he seemed almost taken aback by the audience’s reaction to his jokes.

Collins has a relaxed conversational comedy style, and while he’ll always be the straight man when placed next to someone of Herring’s experience and more outrageous persona, he’s far less straight than he used to be.

Both men performed short sets of solo material before the main event, which really served to emphasise the differences between them. The setpiece of Collins’ act was getting eight people (myself included) up on stage to try ‘Secret Dancing’, a simple, yet elaborate method of dancing along to the music on your iPod while on public transport. To the casual observer this was just a group of people standing still and twitching every now and then, but it was hard not to get caught up in the sheer lunacy of it.

Herring’s set was a highlights package from his last few years of finely-honed full-length shows (hence his mock-exasperation that Collins could get such great laughs from standing still). Much of Herring’s best material relies upon his laddish stage persona taking ideas to their usually ridiculous conclusion. This was best demonstrated here by a wonderful sequence in which he deconstructs the hand gestures used by school children to depict different sexualities, before suggesting a few of his own alternatives. It served as a perfect appetite-whetter for Hitler Moustache… But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Thursday saw me and some friends queuing outside BBC Television Centre (I still can’t get the opening to Live And Kicking out of my head whenever I’m there) for a recording of Harry Hill’s TV Burp. I’ve been a big fan of Hill’s since the days of his Channel 4 show, and have a lot of love for TV Burp.

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The show is recorded ‘as live’ where possible, which made for a nice tight recording at a little over an hour long. In the past I’ve spent four hours watching them make a half-hour sitcom.

Hill was on top form, but perhaps at his best between filming. Whenever they needed to start a link cold, Harry would come out with a brilliant one-liner (his take on You’ve Been Framed has to be seen to be believed) to get the audience laughing, under which he would then read the link. So, if you’ve ever wondered how TV Burp has near-constant laughter in the background, now you know.

It wasn’t Hill’s job to get the audience in the right mood; that task fell to ‘comedian’ Bobby Bragg, whom you may have seen as Pete Waterman in older Burp series, or as the barman in the recent Rock And Chips. Unfortunately, his unique method of warming up the audience seemed to be to lull them into a state of utter boredom through the use of dated topical material, weak observational humour and a general lack of awareness of the audience’s reaction, to make sure that when Harry Hill was ready with the actual comedy, we were more than ready to hear it. It wasn’t all bad, though. If nothing else, I learned the need to always pay attention to your audience. There’s nothing worse than a joke that’s gone on for too long, and Bragg was starting to feel like that joke.

Warm-up act aside, it really was brilliant to see Hill perform, albeit in a slightly restrained fashion, and it was one of the more fun recordings I’ve attended. I’m still keen to see him do some proper stand-up if I get the chance, but for the time being I can tick him off my list.

Ah, yes, my list. I forgot to mention The List last time, didn’t I? Shortly before I embarked upon this journey, I made a note of the comedians I would really like to see perform live and hadn’t done already. A sort of comedy bucket list, I suppose. But who was on it, I hear you ask? In alphabetical order:

Chris Addison, Bill Bailey, Marcus Brigstocke, Rob Brydon, Adam Buxton, Ed Byrne, Jimmy Carr, Jack Dee, Omid Djalili, Kevin Eldon, Ricky Gervais, Rhod Gilbert, Dave Gorman, Toby Hadoke, Rich Hall, Jeremy Hardy, Hattie Hayridge, Harry Hill, Adam Hills, Russell Howard, Reginald D Hunter, Robin Ince, Eddie Izzard, Miles Jupp, Tim Key, Tony Law, Norman Lovett, Lee Mack, Steve Merchant, Sarah Millican, David O’Doherty, Ardal O’Hanlon, Lucy Porter, Paul Sinha, Sarah Silverman, Frank Skinner, Will Smith, Isy Suttie, Mark Watson, Tim Vine.

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The more observant among you will realise that, in the space of a week and a half, I had already seen three of the names on this list (Harry Hill, Robin Ince and Lucy Porter). But as Friday morning dawned, I was hit with a dilemma. I realised that another of the names on my list was performing his solo show in the West End until the following Wednesday. But with the Saturday sold out and other things planned for the following week, it was a case of now or never.

The only problem was I had to see at least two acts which were unfamiliar to me each week, and I’d only seen one – the lamentable Mr Bragg. Would I break my own rules so soon? And then it hit me. One of the reasons I was doing this in the first place was that I’d missed out on opportunities to see people from that list last year, and really regretted it. So I decided that a new rule was called for:

Rule Four: The List takes priority above all things. If The List asks me to jump, I ask, “How high?”

My conscience clear (sort of), I booked a third row ticket to see Marcus Brigstocke in his current show, God Collar, that eveningThe show, broadly speaking, is an exploration of faith and religion (as Brigstocke points out, they are not the same thing).

Marcus realises that he has a large God-shaped hole in his life, and sets about exploring his options. What results is, for the first hour, pretty much what you’d expect from Brigstocke, in the best possible sense. Much of his humour stems from a deep well of annoyance, outrage and sometimes sheer fury, as particularly evidenced in fantastically angry diatribes about climate change deniers and iPhone users (“It’s a pity the iPhone is wasted on the type of person who wants one.”).

The anger doesn’t subside when he moves onto the thorny subject of religion, either. Brigstocke’s ire is all-encompassing, from Catholics and Jews to Muslims and Buddhists. Even agnostics and atheists don’t get away scot-free, with a large amount of scorn poured on Richard Dawkins in particular. But rest assured, this isn’t an uninformed attack on religion. Marcus has done his research, and provides solid, well thought out reasons as to why he wouldn’t be able to adopt any of the established religions as his own. It’s funny because it’s true.

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When Brigstocke returns for the show’s second half, it’s with a far more personal tone. He discusses his relationship with his children, conveying his difficulty in relating to them (particularly at 8 o’clock in the morning) through amusing but sympathy-inducing anecdotes. Then, in a truly moving sequence, the reasons for Brigstocke’s crisis of faith are revealed, and the show becomes inevitably less comic (though Brigstocke still manages to find much humour in what are really quite dark situations) and a lot more heartfelt.

To see the inherently likeable (if occasionally a bit smug) Marcus laid bare like this is heartbreaking to watch, and it’s to his credit that he then manages to turn the sequence around to end on a powerful affirming, yet thoughtful note.

The show won’t be to everyone’s tastes. He’s more offensive, intentionally so, than his Radio 4 audience will have come to expect, and those of a deeply religious disposition may wish to think twice before choosing to go along. But if you see the show with an open mind, whatever your beliefs or lack thereof, you’ll be hard-pushed to find a more thoughtful show on tour at the moment.

So, where do I stand at the end of Week Two?

Number of comedians seen – 16 Amount of money spent on tickets – £60 Number of comedians remaining on The List – 36 Number of times the Live And Kicking theme went around my head while waiting outside Television Centre – 47

Join me next week as I atone for my sins, am invited to go Long, and a saga concludes. 

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