In January, I tasked myself with seeing as much comedy as I possibly could, and to eventually get up on stage and perform myself. As February turned into March, I was due to move house and had an awful lot of packing to do. But would I let that deter me from my comedic journey? What do you think..?
Growing up, I was never a big fan of female comics. My exposure was limited, of course. Jo Brand, Victoria Wood, French and Saunders and… well, that’s about it, really. It was a relief, once I started seeing live comedy, to discover that, actually, I wasn’t a terrible sexist who hated all female comics. I just happened to dislike those female comics. I have to wonder, then, what my teenage self would have thought of me on Sunday, as I popped along to the Lyric Hammersmith for their monthly comedy night, with an all-female line-up (and a compere called Richard Herring – never heard of him, but apparently he was on telly in the 90s).
I’d seen the first act, Sara Pascoe, once before. She played in front of a crowd of geeks and nerds during the Sci-Fi London film festival and totally failed to endear herself to them by singing a song, which she claimed to have written with us in mind (though this is, of course, highly unlikely), about suicidal people. It’s safe to say that Pascoe went down much better here. Similarities have been drawn between Sara and Russell Brand, and it’s easy to see why. Both comics approach their subject material with a tone of distracted whimsy, and throw in literary references at the drop of a hat.
Unlike Brand, however, Pascoe doesn’t play up the sexual angle in her comedy, and that leaves a hole in the middle of the act. Brand uses the overly-flirtatious nature as a bridge between highbrow material and his more offensive subjects, whereas Pascoe is left to leap between joking about sensitive subjects such as anorexia and replacing song lyrics to make them more literary. It’s all constructed in a very surreal fashion, but leaves the audience feeling disoriented in their amusement.
Next up was a familiar face, if not a familiar act. As well as having played Dobby in Peep Show for the last couple of years, Isy Suttie is an accomplished performer in her own right. In keeping with her on-screen persona, Suttie’s style of comedy is quite inoffensive, focusing on things like letters from home and songs about love. It’s a very gentle (if slightly surreal at times) act, but though she may not have elicited the biggest laughs of the evening, Suttie definitely had the crowd on her side.
Suttie was followed by Nina Conti, a ventriloquism act. I’ve always been a bit wary of ventriloquists, though, again, this is more than likely due to the few I’d seen on TV not being very good. However, in this case, I was really pleasantly surprised.
Yes, of course you can see her lips move, but the two characters we saw – Conti’s grandmother and her monkey – were both deliciously dark and subversive, and made for an entertaining experience. It was a collection of set pieces, such as a séance with the assistance of a member of the audience, but the climax was a treat, with Conti’s monkey character – quite contemptuous of his status as a puppet with a woman’s hand up his bottom – literally stealing the show. I suspect Conti has a lot more where these characters came from, and would be interested to see what she does with a full-length show.
The final act was Sarah Millican, whose act could be divided into two topics: cakes, and love/sex. True to a dozen stereotypes, northerner Millican didn’t pull any punches as she talked about her love life, her friends’ love lives, and even the audience’s love lives. Yet, despite the brazen subject matter, it’s hard not to feel comfortable in Millican’s presence. She comes across as a kindly aunty, someone who’ll listen to your problems over a nice cup of tea. It’s only once you listen to what she’s actually saying that you get knocked out of this false sense of security. Fortunately, however, her wit is as sharp as her accent, and she brought a fittingly raucous end to an enjoyable evening.
Early Tuesday evening, I popped to a pub in Central London with one of my comedy chums, and tested out some of what little material I had so far. It was a nerve-wracking experience.
I’ve often seen comedy as the thing I have as compensation for not being some sexy, athletic young stud, so to risk finding out that I’m actually not funny is a big leap to take for me. This first time round, the truth lay somewhere in the middle of the two extremes. There was some genuine chuckling (I think) amongst the polite laughter, but it’s clear I’m going to need to take quite a bit of it back to the drawing board. Which, I suppose, is how it should be, and it’s how you learn. But the only way I can really learn is to put it out there in front of an audience.
However, this would have to wait, as I had an appointment with Adam Riches’ Fresh Meat night, a place for sketch and character acts to try out their new material, overseen by the eponymous Buxton-esque comic, whose laid-back Australian character proved to be a good choice to warm the audience up for the evening’s festivities. I prefer to stay away from reviewing new material in too much detail, as it’s inevitably not showing the comic at their best, so I’ll opt for a brief overview instead.
Sketch duo Cardinal Burns proved a hit as they debuted a sketch about a rather too sexual children’s TV moggy, though other sketches didn’t seem to work so well for me. Fraser Millward presented a brilliant piece of what could almost be better described as performance art which involved the entire audience leaving the pub (usually this is a sign you’ve done a bad job, but not so here), but I was less impressed with Jess Ransom, whose hard-nosed Tania Law character didn’t feel like she was going anywhere funny anytime soon.
Cariad Lloyd debuted a superhero based on Helena Bonham Carter, a performance which never quite lived up to its potential, but still showed a lot of promise, while the man behind Angelos Epithemiou, Dan Renton Skinner, formed part of duo Mr Winchester and Tommy. A pair of stereotypical old-fashioned entertainers, Winchester and Tommy managed to milk a fair amount of humour from a premise which has been parodied many times before by other comics. There is, however, only so long that being deliberately unfunny can actually be funny, and though they never outstayed their welcome, the set ended at just the right time. This is clearly the weaker of Skinner’s two characters, and it is no surprise to me that it is Angelos who is being propelled into the spotlight.
Having seen a number of character and sketch acts in the past week, it occurs to me that I rarely rate them as highly as ‘straight’ standups (a notion which is, of course, nonsensical, since all standups are playing a character of some kind). I think this is because I find a lot of comedy in empathy. Richard Herring’s shows, as well as being devilishly rude, are often quite personal, or at the very least relatable.
Bring on an absurd comedy character, however, and there’s no believability, nothing to latch onto and say, “That’s funnier because it echoes this aspect of my life.” There’s just a string of gags.
Having developed an eye for comedy, I can, of course, still appreciate jokes on their own terms – there’s nothing more exciting than having the rug snatched from under you – but this detached style of comedy just doesn’t work for me.
There is, however, an exception to every rule, as I found out when I visited Milton Jones for a one-hour gig on Wednesday evening. I had seen Jones perform a 20 minute set in 2009 and had enjoyed it immensely. I had wondered, though, whether the constant punning would begin to grate when stretched across an hour. I needn’t have worried.
Almost every one of Jones’ often bizarre non sequiturs was both meticulously crafted and devastatingly effective, to the point where I was left struggling to breathe at one point. And the jokes really do come thick and fast, thanks to Jones’ incredible perception of the audience.
More often than not, a joke would go unfinished because Milton had realised the audience knew where it was headed, given him the laugh, and allowed him to move on. This isn’t to say that the jokes are at all dumbed down, more that Jones has attracted, through his radio and TV work, an audience intelligent enough to follow him on his strange and rapid journey.
Though using several different conceits to tell his jokes, including pretending to be his own grandfather and showing a series of slides to the audience, these really were just framing devices for another series of one-liners. And while the quality of the gags meant the act didn’t grow stale, there was a feeling 45 minutes in that Jones had used up all of the material he had to hand, and began to flounder. As such, the evening ended with a bit of a damp squib rather than a triumphant flourish. That said, that 45 minutes was possibly one of the finest I’ve seen in the six weeks I’ve been doing this, and left me rolling on the floor gasping for air like an asthmatic tortoise.
At the end of Week 6:
Number of comedians seen: 68 Amount of money spent on tickets: £177 Number of comedians remaining on The List: 32 Number of times a comedian forced me to clean a table during the show: 1
Join me next week as I go overboard on seeing comedy instead of unpacking, pay money to watch YouTube videos and become a bona fide sitcom star…
If you want to recommend a gig, have any thoughts on the column, or just want to be my friend, then feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow me on Twitter. In doing so, you agree to me following you home and sitting behind a bush in your garden with a pair of binoculars aimed at your window.