Comedy review: Comedy in the dark

First published online for The Skinny

Comedy in the Dark is what it says on the tin. Whilst there’s a little bit of light as acts come on and off stage, the room is pitch dark – trusty helpers are employed to cover the fire exits signs (to be uncovered swiftly in case of genuine emergency) and you can’t see your hand in front of your face. It’s a fun and innovative premise, and one that’s exploited by the comics to varying effect.

Compere Jim Smallman introduces the night in an amiable enough fashion, drawing predictable but well-delivered banter out of the situation we’re all in. The first act on stage then repeats some of this – proving that acts should always listen to the compere. Next, Mark Olver quickly decides that his material isn’t suited to the environment, and that it would be more hilarious to climb through the audience in the dark. In fact this swings between boring and dangerous.

It’s James Acaster who is the clear star of the show. Whilst he loses some of the late night audience with the experimental nature of his material, to the more sober amongst us he proves victoriously that comedy really is all in the delivery.

Although tonight’s comics largely fail to properly explore the opportunities presented by the set-up, the line-up that changes nightly, and it’s well worth checking out as a proper Fringe experience.


Comedy review: David Reed

First published online for The Skinny

Shamblehouse is the first solo show from former Penny Dreadful David Reed, hotly tipped for this year’s Edinburgh Comedy Award Best Newcomer.

From the moment he walks on stage, Reed is completely believable as each of his characters. This is not the masks and wigs school of character comedy. Reed is a superb actor and embraces the full physicality of each of his creations, and yet there is always a flicker of the man himself smiling knowingly and joyfully out of his eyes. This is particularly the case in his central character, a surreal Eastern European who seems to inhabit the space between worlds and between sketches, operating neither as tired filler nor something which suffocates the other characters.

If the audience’s deep investment in the acrobatic career of a doughnut seems unexpected, it’s nothing compared to their concern over the fate of an imaginary Labrador. Combining extreme silliness with moments of total poignancy, Reed is utterly captivating, and the crowd hang on his every word.

A strong ending has an epilogue which is brilliant but perhaps unnecessary, but this seems an insignificant criticism in an otherwise perfect hour.

Seeing stars

First published on The Skinny website

If you’ve been following Skinny Fringe coverage, you may have noticed there are no one star reviews. We’re not publishing any – we don’t see the point.

A 1 star review means there really is nothing to recommend about a show. The act may have taken a brave risk, but they’ve got it wrong and, in the opinion of the reviewer (who’s quite possibly talking bollocks, by the way), should probably go home. Is it really helpful to publish this for all to see?

Of course, some people like reading bad reviews. They love a delicious postmortem full of overly long metaphors in which the writer attempts to show just exactly why they are much, much better at what they do than the performer was. And sometimes, these have their place. I carry with me to this day The Stranger’s roasting of Sex and the City 2, a film dripping with cultural imperialism and the most depressing kind of sexism, which spent millions of dollars trying to sell us Möet & Chandon and a Mullerlight.

But this is the Fringe, not the Oscars. These are people who aspire to a pint of Fosters, for Christ’s sake. If you rip a comedian to shreds, they can’t while away their stresses by checking into rehab or buying a baby. They weren’t trying to sell you anything – many aren’t even charging for entry. They were just trying to make you laugh. And they’ll already be proper gutted that they didn’t.

All of the Skinny Comedy content is online (along with a shedload of extra stuff from The Shimmy – check it out) and the internet is already too full of useless vitriol. So we’re with our mums on this one – if you can’t say anything that is genuinely helpful, don’t say anything at all.

Comedy review: Mitch Benn

First published online for The Skinny

Mitch Benn’s show opens with a song explaining what his show is not about. It’s a theme throughout the show, as he tells us what he’s not going to talk about and proceeds to talk about it for ten minutes. Although this is a common device used to segue between material, its repeated use is frustrating in this case and leaves the feeling that we’ve never quite got to the meat of the show.

There is essentially no meat, and fans of Benn might be somewhat let down as he revisits old classics rather than coming up with anything new or topical. Newbies, though, are likely to have a tremendous time: a classic is a classic for a reason. Geekily knowledgeable and a massive Doctor Who fan, Benn is an accomplished performer and songwriter. Sci-fi fans in particular may have found their perfect show.

His Macbeth rap, when it comes, is a impressive work of genius, but the set-up is rambling -it’s essentially a long demonstration of how impressive his iphone app is – clever, but unnecessary.

Comedy review: Paul Sinha

First published online for The Skinny website

Paul Sinha’s been a man with a message. Last year’s show, Extreme Anti-White Vitriol, focused on accusations made against him by the BNP. In September, Jim Davidson called him an ‘Indian poof’ and one of a collection of ‘jealous, socialists cunts’ on the internet. An easy win for a similar show title, but it seems Sinha doesn’t want to be pigeonholed. Everyone who knows of him knows instantly that’s he’s gay, Asian and used to be a doctor. It must be terribly frustrating for a man with undoubtable comic talent to be so defined by these attributes. I applaud him for taking a new direction.

However, it’s unclear what direction he has taken. His show this year has no discernable theme at all – the Oscar Wilde quote to which the title refers seems uncomfortably tacked on at the end. Sinha is very funny, very intelligent and seems genuinely confident about who he is, in all respects. He delivers a show that is funny and engaging and the audience are enjoying themselves. But it’s disjointed; it’s not quite a show yet.

Sinha may be having an off year but I still can’t shake off the feeling that he’s going through a necessary transition on his way to something more interesting still.

Comedy review: Craig Campbell

First published online for The Skinny

I have to admit to a certain amount of trepidation as I made my way into Craig Campbell’s show. The sold-out audience were crabby from waiting in the rain and already mobbing the bar (open throughout the show) ordering WKD Blues.

But Campbell’s entrance acted as an instant soother and uniting force. As he high fived an excitable man towards the front, who couldn’t help but stand up to greet him, you got the impression that he carries genuine love for everyone in the room.

He opens by talking about the weather, a well-worn subject that’s beginning to get on my nerves this Fringe. But he approaches this from a viewpoint of someone who knows the country and our climactic oddities well. He’s actually spent time in Scotland and knows what he’s talking about, and this lends his material believability beyond the observations of a first timer who has, shockingly, noticed it’s raining.

He’s also the first comic I’ve seen to cover the events in Norway, but doesn’t try to be dark or edgy with it. He has the audience both in stitches, and wanting to go out and find a Norwegian to hug.

Campbell’s material at times carries the potential to be deeply disturbing – an anecdote about his mountaineering experience will stay with me for some time – but he carries them all off with such immense likeability that the dismay is never uncomfortable. He combines simple pleasure principle with an innocent naivety and a face that would let him away with murder.

Thoughts on rape jokes

So, a friend linked to this article yesterday about rape jokes. The premise of the, very brief, article, is that you shouldn’t make rape jokes because statistically, one in five people have been raped, and it acts as a trigger,and you shouldn’t upset people.

On the face on it, I totally agreed. But it’s been percolating in my mind. The thing is, there are many horrific things that may happen to someone over the course of their lifetime. Some are undoubtedly more horrific than others, but horrific is horrific, traumatic is traumatic and a trigger is a trigger.

I work in comedy so I’ve seen many of its incarnations, but there is still some material that triggers me. Jokes about eating disorders tend to be the worst. They upset me, they make my stomach flip and  make me want to stick my fingers in my ears in a bizarre childish fashion. Jokes about self-harm can have a similar effect, and even very banal material about family relationships can make me uncomfortable and sets me off on trains of thought I didn’t want to be having.

I am very lucky; I have never been raped. Many people close to me have, though, and it’s been various stages of horrific. I’m not for one moment suggesting it’s anything less than that and I wouldn’t swap my traumatic experiences for theirs. So I suppose that, if I’m in the business of ranking trauma (which I’m not), I’d rank their experiences as Worse Than mine.

I don’t need to say it: rape is bad. We all know rape is bad. Some know first-hand, some, like me, second hand, some just in the same way that you know killings is bad. The debate about whether we know this intrinsically as humans or not is for another day, but it certainly feels instrinsic.

Rape is so bad that we shouldn’t joke about it. We can joke about other forms of abuse (or self abuse), we can joke about death or trauma or illness or terrible bad fortune. But we shouldn’t joke about rape. In fact, you know what, we probably shouldn’t talk about it at all…

This is my problem with the ‘don’t joke about rape’ concept. It in fact reinforces the concept of rape as the Last Taboo. It’s something that’s still stigmatised and putting into its own separate category of unacceptability underlines this stigma.

But the original article is right. Son’t say ‘I totally raped level three’ (not a phrase,thankfully, that I’ve ever heard myself). Similarly, don’t describe the wonky wheel on your shopping trolley as ‘totally gay’. Don’t call the checkout operator at TK Maxx ‘a total spastic’.

Don’t make jokes *at the expense* of those who have been raped, and don’t apportion language in a way that will upset people and reinforce stereotypes and stigmas. But the moment we stop being able to joke about something is the moment when it holds most fear for us.

Don’t not make rape jokes. Just joke like you should drink – responsibly.

Funny’s Funny

First published online for The Skinny

I’d like to start this piece by thanking Funny Women, which is a pretty unusual thing in the comedy community right now. The organisation is less popular than ever, following their recent decision to start charging entrants £15 to compete in their annual all-female contest. It was the last straw for many from an organisation which seems to have set back feminism far more than it has promoted it. Whilst founder Lynne Parker denies such allegations, female comics all over the country tell tales of censored material and a clear steer towards lovely girlie acts performing ‘appropriate’ material. Parker was allegedly thrilled by any competition winner who “looked pretty on the posters”.

Funny Women’s latest move has been described as causing controversy in the comedy community, but that’s not entirely accurate. In fact, it has caused unity, distilled in the creation of new co-operative organisation Funny’s Funny, who are running their own competition this month to promote the best of female talent. Entry is free, material is uncensored (provided, of course, that it is original), and the competition is open to anyone who identifies themselves as female.

However, this isn’t about the industry uniting against a common enemy. “Leading by example” is how Funny’s Funny co-founder Ashley Frieze puts it. Frieze was a leading voice in the outcry against Funny Women’s actions, but rather than just sit back and complain about inadequate provision, he decided – together with fellow comics Okse, Jane Hill, Rob Coleman and Bethany Black – to create a workable alternative.

But does an organisation promoting women, but which is run predominantly by men, not run the risk of seeming patronising? “I don’t think we who are male see it that way,” says Frieze “Why can’t men appreciate the value of women in comedy?” This in fact is feminism at its very strongest. It’s not about treating women differently, pandering to their delicate sensibilities and uncomfortable shoes, or ghetto-ising them. It’s about recognising that any comedian is part of the same community, and that the predominate function of that community is to be funny.

But if that’s the case, why do a female comedy competition at all? This was a question raised by Chortle editor Steve Bennett when Funny’s Funny emailed him to call on his support.

“It’s not our philosophy that women must have their own competition,” explains Frieze “Our philosophy is that it doesn’t matter what your gender, or persuasion, or anything else, is – if you’re funny, you’re funny.” But they did see the need to redress the imbalance caused by Funny Women’s monopoly on declaring the title of Funniest Female Comedian.

Well, it was good enough for Bennett. Chortle have thrown their whole-hearted support behind the competition; hosting the final, donating the prize money and – perhaps most importantly – ensuring the presence of industry professionals at the final, making it an invaluable showcase for all the finalists.

It’s a clear message of solidarity, and one that has been echoed by club owners, promoters and comedians all over the country. Frieze describes that he was “touched” by the way the industry have responded. “There’s a clear message that the comedy industry likes its women.”

This isn’t about Girl Power, Solidarity Sistas or positive discrimination. It’s about comedy and genuine equality.

Money Women

JoJo Sutherland

Funny Women instate ‘pay-to-play’ policy, causing outrage in the comedy community.

All-female comedy award Funny Women launched in 2002 as an attempt to put right the under-representation of women in comedy. Whilst initially supported by many acts, its reputation has gone rapidly downhill in recent years.Although Funny Women style themselves as a feminist organisation, many believe that they’re actually doing far more to damage the reputation of female comedians than to help it. Acts claim to have been censored by the organisers, being warned against swearing, talking about being gay, and material that was not considered ‘appropriate’ for women.Most worrying of all, perhaps, is a story recounted by comic Elise Harris of her experience at a heat: “I overheard a conversation between the organisers and a person who was trying to enter. This person was insisting they were female, they had a female name. The organisers argued for quite a time that they did not accept that and then told the person they would not let them enter.”

However, Funny Women founder Lynne Parker denies allegations of censorship: “We don’t censor acts’ material,” she told us, “unless there is a reason to do so, either for broadcast or a commercial commission.”

Funny Women announced yesterday (20 April) what could be the final nail in their coffin: with entries now open for the 2011 competition, they have introduced a £15 administration charge.

‘Pay-to-play’ is a practice that has been universally criticised in the UK and quashed by the comedy community wherever anyone has tried to institute it. Comedy should be a meritocracy, nurturing talent on its own basis and allowing for experimentation, and comedy promoters should be part of this process. Where promoters both charge performers to play, and charge the audience to watch (tickets to Funny Women heats are priced at £10-£12); the incentive is not to programme acts based on talent, but rather on what they are willing to pay. Ultimately, audiences are likely to turn away from a comedy industry devoid of artistic practice, and without an audience, the industry is dead.

We asked Scottish comic JoJo Sutherland what she makes of this latest news. “Exploitative, divisive and reprehensible are some of the words that spring to mind.” says Sutherland, a finalist in the inaugural awards, “I was initially supportive of an organisation that seemed to be providing a platform to encourage women into an ultimately male-dominated arena. How naïve and wrong I was.”

She is vehemently opposed to pay-to-play in any situation and believes “we must fight tooth and nail” to stop the practice.

“It is no coincidence that most comics who have been involved with Funny Women in the past are no longer willing to be associated with the brand, which persists in perpetuating the myth that somehow women need to be nurtured into performing stand up. The existence of Funny Women is a ridiculous notion but the idea that women are now being told they have to pay to be marginalised is frankly obscene.”

Parker insists, however that “anybody trying to change things will always get criticised.” She claims to have had an enormous amount of support on the issue, and that promoters of this kind of competition deserve to have a value put on what they do. “Maybe I’m just making a stand, perhaps rather bravely, that other people might agree with. We’re not the ogres; we love what we do.”

First published online for The Skinny

Interview: Tim Minchin

His debut musical has got a West End transfer, a film of one of his songs is out right now now, and he’s coming to Scotland next week with his epic show Tim Minchin and His Orchestra Tim Minchin’s come a long way for a wee lad from Perth (the other one).

Following the recent announcement of a West End transfer for Matilda, today (8 Apr) marks another exciting day for Tim Minchin: the internet release of the Storm movie, an animation of Minchin’s 9-minute beat poem of the same name. It’s been some time in the making, having been produced largely as a labour of love by a small team in England.  Minchin is very excited about the release: “It’s brilliant having your work taken to a different level like that, through no work of your own.”

The poem itself, with its angry anti-hippie messages, might have come as a bit of a surprise to fans who fell in love with Minchin over one of his most famous songs, Canvas Bags. “It’s a wonderful thing to think that I had a whole load of people watching me because they thought I was a loose-haired hippy, and then having to listen to Storm.” And the great irony is that Canvas Bags, with its ostentatious staging and wind machines, was a joke; “Taking the mick out of Bono and the ‘save the world, we are the world, we are the children’ sort of idea – that a white middle class fuckwit in a rock stadium can sing this shit.”

He’s quick to clarify that he wasn’t only mocking it, though. “I bloody hate plastic bags, and I totally do want people to take canvas bags to the supermarket. The thing I like about that song is that I never committed either way to whether I was taking the piss out of hippies or writing an anthem and that’s great – it should be allowed to do both things.”

Next week, Minchin brings his majestic show Tim Minchin and His Orchestra to Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen. So where did he get the inspiration for such an undertaking? Well, the idea for the whole project, he tells us, came from an Australian producer who negotiates a lot of contemporary acts into relationships with orchestras. “As soon as I knew about the idea, I really wanted to take the challenge of trying to make a show that genuinely uses the orchestra in all its glory, whilst not letting it dilute the comedy.”

It’s the first project of its kind: whilst he acknowledges Barry Humphries’ work with orchestras, and Bill Bailey’s Remarkable Guide to the Orchestra in 2009 (describing him as ‘absolutely gorgeous in it’), this show is different in that it engages the orchestra more directly with the comedy; “Trying to use the orchestra to kind of enhance the massive, audacious, wanky tunes.”

Of course, touring with an orchestra does tend to hike up ticket prices. He describes the ‘hours’ of arguments he’s had with promoters, trying desperately to make the project work for less. But the bottom line is that there are 60 musicians onstage, with all their associated crew costs, and folk need paid. “I completely understand people not liking the ticket prices going up, but it would be incredibly naïve of someone to think that it’s because I’ve got greedy. We are going to make no money out of Scotland. But the fact is, no matter what your reason is, there are students out there who can’t come to my show this year, and that’s a real pity.”

Writing the show, Minchin also worried that the distraction of the orchestra, and the need to play so strictly in time, might hamper the comedy. But audiences seem to be loving it so far, and in the relatively small venues the show is playing in Scotland, he tells us it’s going to “blow people’s heads off. At times it’s incredibly beautiful, at times it’s very harsh, and at times it’s very big, epic, rock and roll and stupid. I think if I was in the audience I’d enjoy it, and that’s all you can really ask of yourself.”

First published online for The Skinny