Pete’s Comedy Odyssey: Richard Herring, Sarah Kendall, Greg Davies, Robin Ince, Brendan Burns, Andrew O’Neill

Pete kicks off a new regular comedy column, with his round-up of what he's been watching over the last week or two...

I’ve always loved stand-up comedy. I remember, as a child, getting a cassette tape of Jasper Carrott’s stand-up free with a box of PG Tips. And I played it until the tape snapped. It was a revelation to me. There were no colourful characters, no awkward predicaments and situations. There was just one man, talking away at an audience and making them laugh.

My love affair with comedy continued through the nineties and into the noughties. I discovered Blackadder, The Day Today, Alan Partridge, Lee and Herring… And, of course, everybody discovered The Simpsons.

But stand-up didn’t have the same popularity during the late nineties as it’s enjoying now, so my exposure was inevitably limited. The likes of Jack Dee and Eddie Izzard were semi-familiar to me, but I had no idea how big the stand-up circuit was.

Once I got to university, I seized upon the chance to go to the Students Union’s fortnightly comedy club, and became a bit of a front row regular for a time (to the point where a small group of students even set up their own ‘fan club’ for me). The quality of the acts was often mixed – for every top act, there’d be a couple of stinkers – but I was finally getting to see live stand-up, finally able to sample the unique atmosphere that comes from being in the audience of a show where anything could happen.

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I’ve lived in London for almost a year now, and in January two things happened: firstly, I made a New Year’s resolution that I would definitely try my hand at stand-up during 2010. It’s been something I’ve wanted to do for years, but I’ve always been on hand to convince myself that I couldn’t possibly do it. Well, no more. As they say, it’s time to shit or get off the pot. The other thing that happened was I received a small amount of money from my parents. Most people would rush straight out and buy some big horror of technology, but I decided to use at least some of this money to help me see as much live comedy as I can during 2010, and perhaps try and discover where I might fit in the grand scheme of things.

So to that end, I set myself three rules.

Rule 1:  I must see at least two live comedy events each week. There are dozens of comedy nights happening every day in London. If I can’t go to at least two of them in a week, then I’m doing something wrong.

Rule 2: At least two of the acts I see during the week must be unfamiliar to me. It would be very easy for me to stick purely to comedians I know from off the telly (and indeed, over the coming weeks there’s going to be several familiar names popping up here), but that’s playing it safe. For every household name performing in London, there’s fifty relative unknowns. If I want to broaden my comedy horizons as well as get an idea of the current circuit, they’re the people I need to be watching.

Rule 3: I must write about my experiences. Put simply, I’ve got a brain like a sieve. There’s no point in me embarking on this project if I’m not going to have a way of remembering what I’ve seen and done. Which is where you come in. Hello!

And so, without further ado…

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Week One

The first stop on my journey was the Lyric Comedy Night in Hammersmith. Hosted each month by Richard Herring (I’ll be covering his act properly when I go to see his Hitler Moustache show in a couple of weeks), the nights attract a lot of top names. In 2009, performers included Stewart Lee, Tim Key, Dara Ó Briain and Stephen Merchant. Herring describes the show as one where every act is a headline act, and it would be hard to disagree with him based on January’s lineup.

First up was Sarah Kendall, a tall and rather striking Australian redhead. Similarities with Nicole Kidman end there, as Kendall herself demonstrated with a bizarre impression of the actress. The nervous energy of Kendall’s set – at times she seemed almost apologetic – made for an interesting contrast to her formidable stage presence, but she won the audience’s affections with a mixture of clever wordplay and twisted observations. Not all of the gags hit home, and the set tailed off at the end rather than reaching any sort of climax, but there was enough strong material – the highlight being the deconstruction of something a market trader had said to her – to leave the audience wanting more.

The next act was Greg Davies, most recognisable as the fearsome Mr Gilbert in The Inbetweeners. As imposing a figure on stage as on screen, Davies was able to own the stage, giving the audience a lot of energy, which he fed off wonderfully. The material itself was surprisingly self-deprecating and heartfelt; material about his strange relationship with his father was interspersed with a series of bizarre short anecdotes. Davies is also part of the sketch trio We Are Klang, but this set indicated that he has just as much, if not more, to offer on his own.

After the interval (and some suitably geeky banter between myself and Herring, which you can read about here) came Robin Ince. Looking much like an English lecturer in his duffel coat, Ince hit the ground running with his take on the Jan Moir affair, and went on to tackle subjects such as his young son’s love of Nick Cave and the recent Pop Art exhibition at the Tate Modern. Ince certainly doesn’t patronise his audience, and in other hands this material could alienate huge swathes of the crowd. However, he expresses his points eloquently and intelligently, and Ince’s barely concealed rage makes him an instantly relatable character.

I’ve known of Brendon Burns, the evening’s final act, for some time, but this was the first time I’d seen any of his material. He has a reputation as something of a firebrand in the comedy world, and it seemed that was what we were in for when he laid into a sound technician who botched up his entrance and insisted that the whole thing be done a second time. However, once on stage, Burns seemed somewhat de-fanged, telling tales of his now ex-girlfriend, and reflecting on their relationship. It was still cleverly crafted and rather funny, but not what I’d expected. The vicious Burns did rear his head a few times, most notably when an idiot heckler decided to verbally attack him and not let go even though she was clearly way out of her depth (she was eventually escorted from the room), but the more sedate nature of the rest of the set made the extreme moments stand out slightly awkwardly. I’d be interested to see some of Burns’ past work to compare with what I saw here.

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All in all, though, it was a brilliant night, and all the comedians, Herring in particular, were clearly just really enjoying themselves, which I think is my first learned lesson with regards to my own stand-up ambitions: if you enjoy it, the audience is much more likely to enjoy it.

The following evening, I went to see a recording of BBC Radio 4’s Act Your Age, hosted by Simon Mayo. TV and radio recordings are a great way to see some top comedians live, though often there’s no way of knowing who you’re getting until the evening. I was quite lucky with the line-up here. Competing with each other in a bid to be the funniest comedy generation were Jon Richardson and Tom Wrigglesworth, Lucy Porter and John Bishop, and ITV quiz show gods Roy Walker and Tom O’Connor.

Rather appropriately, the recording took place in an intimate North London comedy club, which made for a very different atmosphere to the typical theatre venues for these things. It also meant that I was about ten feet from the comics, meaning I can confirm that a) the sadly newly-wed Lucy Porter is as beautiful in person as she is on telly, and b) Tom O’Connor hasn’t aged a day since Crosswits.

The show is broadcast in two weeks’ time, so I won’t spoil what happened, except to say that I was incredibly pleasantly surprised by how sharp Tom O’Connor is. It’s all too easy to dismiss comics of his generation as dated and unfunny (and, unfortunately, I was rather less impressed by his teammate), but that’s a very lazy assumption to make. O’Connor may not be particularly edgy (though that’s not to say he didn’t tell a few jokes that won’t make it to air!), but he’s a consummate professional with a story for every occasion and the power to still make it relevant and funny.

The next few days saw me laid up in bed. I’ll spare you the grisly details, but I was able to make it out to see some comedy on Friday evening. Deciding to take a bit of a lucky dip, I used Chortle’s gig guide to look for something that took my fancy. When I spotted a show entitled ‘Andrew O’Neill: Occult Comedian’, my curiosity was piqued, so I dragged a friend along to London’s Soho Theatre. I have to admit, I was a little disconcerted to find a dog tag with a pentagram and a goat skull on it awaiting me on my seat, and was further concerned by the chalk pentagram on the stage and the gas mask attached to the microphone. What had I wandered into?

Little was done to allay my fears when O’Neill came onto the stage to a metal soundtrack, wearing women’s clothes and looking quite the goth (actually, I quite fancied him whenever I took my glasses off to clean them. If there’s any single bespectacled goth-y looking girls out there, please do get in touch). However, he quickly won my heart with his opening line: “Red and orange and yellow and green, blue and indigo and violet; I can sing a rainbow accurately.” And we were off. O’Neill’s show combines such surreal asides with tales of how he came to be an occultist, and of his almost lifelong transvestitism. It’s honest, it’s passionate, and most of all, it makes for a very funny show. 

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It helped, of course, that this was a very geek-friendly gig. Not only were there a bundle of references to various TV shows (Brigadier Alastair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart is mentioned in a list of potential baby names, and there’s a whole sequence about meeting Roy Walker, strangely enough), but O’Neill’s occultism springs directly from interviewing comics genius Alan Moore. And even broader than that, this is a show about geeky passion; whether it’s explaining the intricacies of different kinds of metal music or talking about the strange reactions he gets to his lifestyle, there are a lot of things in O’Neill’s act that the readers of this site will be able to relate to, and to hear him talking about them with such wit and eloquence is a joy.

In a week full of big names, this was the highlight for me. I discovered a wonderful comedian whom I had no idea existed until about four hours before I saw him. It proved to me that there really was a point to this journey of mine, and that many similar great rewards may await me in the not-too-distant future…

So, in summary:

Number of comedians seen: 12 Amount of money spent on tickets: £27 Number of satanic trinkets acquired: 1

Join me next week, for a podcast spectacular and a trip to TV-land…