Category Archives: Comedy

Daniel Kitson, Cambridge Junction, 2 June 2013

Daniel Kitson at Greenwich Comedy Festival, 2010Last night I got to see Daniel Kitson. Kitson is rated, by those who ought to know about these things such as Stewart Lee, as one of the best stand-up comedians in the country, though he’s not exactly a household name given his refusal to appear on television or indeed in any format that he doesn’t have complete creative control over. He does however appear to have a dedicated following judging by how quickly the tickets for this show at The Junction sold out – I heard about it purely by chance and was lucky enough to secure my place early, one of the few times I’ve paid to see a headline act I’ve literally never seen or heard anything by.

It turns out to be well worth it. Kitson appears on stage at 8pm, sits down at a table upon which rests a small keyboard-like device, and without any ceremony starts rattling through a hundred minute set that’s as densely packed with humour and pathos and arresting images and delightful connections and well, language, as anything I can ever remember seeing. It actually takes a while to adjust to the sheer pace of his delivery and his use of his electronic box of tricks to provide a simple musical backing track is also initially distracting, though in time you find yourself settled in nicely to the torrent of stuff that’s coming at you. There’s probably about two to three times as much material here as you’d get in the average comedy show filling this sort of time slot (and it’s particularly interesting to compare Kitson’s approach to the aforementioned S. Lee, who’s been known to get quarter of an hour or so out of the slow repetition and gradual embellishment of one simple phrase).

But what, you may ask, is this man’s stuff about? Actually…in basic terms, nothing that unusual really. Kitson is far from the first comic to mine his own life for instances of guilt or embarrassment or lust or peculiar obsession that he can then exaggerate or creatively embroider to humorous effect, though the incidents that he chooses to present are generally so particular that they ring true in a way that most stand-ups’ don’t. Where he really makes his mark though is in his detached, forensic and penetrating analyses of his and other human beings’ behaviour and in some of the insights he comes up with regarding the way memory works or the way people condition themselves or the tiny largely unobserved moments that betray oceans of insecurity just below the surface – this stuff’s in danger of being describable as profound. Thankfully he’s canny enough to temper any potential pretentiousness with a healthy side order of knob jokes, mock arrogance and comfortable Eddie Izzard style stuff about biscuits and fruit. It’s really impressive, and I’d love to have been able to hold onto more specifics but as Kitson himself says he goes so quickly there’s not much point trying to reconstruct any actual quotes from the show after the event.

Kitson may be fast but he’s never muddled and this show has a real structure, most obviously evident through his periodic replaying of a recording of a reported incident in a hotel room that seems more seedy the more you hear of it, and the conclusion of the set (which is otherwise as abrupt as its start) feels like an emotional pay-off as he manages to tie together his main themes satisfactorily but with no hint of sentimentality. This is only the latest in a long line of shows that he’s been performing over the last fifteen years or so and so far as I know none of them have been made available commercially so if you want to see him you’ll have to…um…go see him. But remember to get in there quickly if you hear he’s coming to town.

Notes on Red Dwarf X

Well, that was surprisingly…not terrible.

It might not win me any points in the serious movie critic stakes but way back in the day I was a big fan of Red Dwarf. Round about the end of the 1980s, when the original run of Doctor Who was going through an extended and widely derided death rattle and plush US product such as Star Trek: The Next Generation and The X Files were yet to wash up on the shores of British programming, there wasn’t a whole lot of TV sci-fi to choose from. There was however a comedy series set on a mining ship three million years in the future which over six series quietly evolved from a zero-budget variation of the classic “two men who can’t stand each other trapped in a room” sit-com scenario (see Steptoe and Son) to a witty and tightly paced vehicle for some really imaginative takes on the sort of ideas about identity that wouldn’t be out of place in a Philip K. Dick story. Characters would come face-to-face with alternate, and frequently deviant, versions of themselves, or be suddenly woken up to the horrible realisation that their whole existence has been a video game. It was in some ways pretty heady stuff for something made by the light entertainment department. In other ways however Red Dwarf qualified easily as a classic sit-com, with its strong character-based humour deriving naturally from the interactions between its small cast of misfits and losers: Lister the slob, Rimmer the officious coward (deceased), the wisecracking narcissist Cat and the fussy and neurotic service-droid Kryten. The fifth series in particular is for me one of the most consistently funny and rewatchable batch of comedies the BBC ever put out, up there with the best of Fawlty Towers and Blackadder (and God knows how many times I rewatched it back in the days before I could entertain myself with DVDs and multi-screen arthouse cinemas).

And then, as any long-running series tends to, it went off the boil. By the mid-90s the Dwarf was a definite cult, with the weight of expectation that implies, and the seventh and eighth series were both disappointments. Part of this is down to personnel changes – co-creator Rob Grant had left, leaving his partner Doug Naylor to recruit other writers to help him with the scripts, and crucially actor Chris Barrie took a sabbatical, leaving four episodes fatally Rimmer-less – but the main factor in the relative failure of these shows is the well-intentioned but ultimately misguided decision to water down Red Dwarf‘s original premise, firstly by tacking towards comedy-drama rather than out-and-out laughs, and then by introducing a resurrected full ship’s crew. In addition to this, the neat and ingenious cod-scientific concepts at the heart of the episodes had been largely replaced by slick but facile digital effects. It all just wasn’t the same, and the series was rested in 1999, with vague talk about a feature film not exactly inspiring hope in the fans that remembered how specious a similar aspiration regarding the future of the never officially cancelled Doctor Who had turned out to be.

Now then. We’re not quite three million years into the future yet but we’re far enough for there to now be myriad digital TV channels looking around for audience-pulling content and no cult series can now be left in peace if there’s any possibility of milking it further. One of the more prominent of these channels is called Dave, and it’s probably best known for endlessly re-running old editions of Top Gear to reasonably healthy effect, in terms of ratings anyway. A while back they also started repeating Red Dwarf, which is in some ways a pretty good fit for the station’s cheerily laddy image, what with the running jokes about lager and curry and personal hygiene and the all-male crew who never encounter women who aren’t either impossible objects of desire or homicidal dominatrixes. Again the ratings were good, so when Dave started to get serious about generating some original programming the Dwarf seemed like a prime candidate for a re-boot, given that the cast and writer were still alive and kicking, and the BBC didn’t seem to have any interest in continuing the show. The first fruit of the revivified franchise emerged in 2009 in the form of a three part special called Red Dwarf: Back To Earth (or IX if we’re keeping count), and although it was a bit cheap and shoddy and got fairly mauled critically it did at least prove that there was still an appetite for this stuff. A full series of six half hour episodes got commissioned and it’s this that’s just finished its run as Red Dwarf X.

The new series has got all the significant players in position, though it’s a shame that Rob Grant didn’t come back as a co-writer. It’s got the same cast, although as the ship computer Holly doesn’t appear neither do either Norman Lovett or Hattie Hayridge, and over twenty years down the line they really don’t look half bad and are as on top of their characters as ever. Danny John-Jules in particular doesn’t look a day older than he did in 1988. The theme music and opening montage are present and correct, as are the Alien-inspired spaceship sets, and while I can’t quite work out how it fits exactly with the continuity of the earlier series that’s not the sort of thing it’s worth losing sleep about.

And you know what? It’s surprisingly not terrible. And you know what else? Unlike series VII and VIII it actually feels like Red Dwarf. Like old old Red Dwarf actually, as in the first couple of series before the sci-fi and action elements started coming to the fore. It’s probably more to do with budgetary limitations than anything else, but this series restores the claustrophobic time-killing feel of yore, with many scenes being basically extended rants or petty arguments about protocol or wistful reminisces or workings out of personal complexes. There is usually a storyline or two but there’s no desperate urgency on the part of either the writer or the characters to get on to the next plot point, and one of the best episodes (Dear Dave) is quite happy not to get started at all and exist solely as a deep space shaggy dog story. And despite the generally relaxed tone there are one or two cleverly worked through faux sci-fi devices that stand comparison to the Dwarf of my youth (the condescending computer that predicts behaviour and adjusts conditions accordingly and the teleporter that’s powered by lemons, for example). I had low expectations but I found myself laughing quite a few times once I’d adjusted to the pace (and the ad-breaks! Sacrilege!) While this is hardly a Universe-bestriding triumph of a resurrection on the scale of 21st Century Doctor Who it’s still very nice to spend some time with. Preferably with some tins of lager and a takeaway. Not terrible is the new cutting-edge, and I’m old enough to be very comfortable with that.

John Cooper Clarke and Mike Garry, The Junction, Cambridge, October 27th 2012

The last time I went to see national treasure John Cooper Clarke he didn’t turn up. He was supposed to be supporting The Fall but apparently got lost somewhere between Colchester and Cambridge – it was a shame, but kind of added to the weird tension of a gig that turned out to be a real cracker so I didn’t hold it against him. Seven years later he’s headlining at the same venue as part of a tour promoting National Poetry Month and I figured it was worth a gamble. He’s a poet, you know. He’s allowed to be a bit flakey.

As it turns out the gig’s sold out and this time he’s even got a support act of his own. And not a bad one either: Mike Garry claims the stage with a brash Mancunian confidence that in some ways belies the quality and formal craft of his verse, which observes and comments on the lives of the under-privileged of his home town with wit, compassion and well-directed anger. He speaks of bad nightclubs and underage criminals and seamy rites of passage with an energy and humour that transcend the potentially depressing subject matter and his skill at varying the dynamics of his performance and ease with which he’s able to project to the back of the room make it a bit surprising when he outs himself as a former librarian. He’s clearly in love with the possibilities of language, delighting in expressing his intent as much through the sounds and rhythms of his lines as through their literal meanings, and while he’s as influenced by his co-star as any streetwise performance poet of the last thirty-odd years these extended pieces seem both more ambitious and more subtle than JCC’s barrages of internal rhymes and pithy punchlines. More often than not they hit home, even the stuff about football, a subject on which I’m pretty ignorant. His eulogy to Anthony H. Wilson on the other hand had me grinning like a loon at the alphabetically arranged cascade of namechecks.

This is all however just a prelude to the headline act, who comes on after the interval after a quick introduction by former Clash road manager Johnny Green, whose burly tuxedoed appearance inevitably reminds you of a Hale and Pace doorman. JCC is instantly recognisable, and would be even in silhouette with the trademark pipecleaner-thin legs, sunglasses and Ron Wood style backcombed bouffant still in place decades after he established his place as the UK’s premier punk poet. It’s really quite reassuring, as is his heartwarmingly shambolic presentational style which has far more in common with the schtick of a Northern workingman’s club comedian of the 1970s than it does with the genteel manner of   the host of a more conventionally highbrow literary event. JCC takes his time between poems, cracking off deadpan one-liners and playing with the audience’s perceptions of what people might expect from someone of his years and somewhat dubious former lifestyle. He enjoys extending the introductions to readings to ludicrous lengths and repeating what he’s about to do so often that these lead-ins start becoming pieces themselves, and while it takes a little time to get adjusted to this mode of presentation it’s worth it: some of the material in the intros is as good as that in the poems themselves, particularly when the man in the shades stumbles into a digression that evolves into a mini stand-up routine, such as the one about seventeen TV channels devoted to Shark Attack programming. The poems he does get round to reading are a mix of old and new, delivered in his familiar 120mph Salford monotone: a longish rant about life being rotten and/or OK in jail holds its own with old faves like Evidently Chickentown and Beasley Street (which now features a second part called Beasley Boulevard reflecting the gentrification of Manchester). JCC rambles and stumbles about on stage a bit but the fact that he retains the ability to fire these screeds off at such speed gives the lie to the running joke about his encroaching senility, and he seems to be enjoying himself too, which is nice to see. Long may he continue, and let’s hope he’s got a sat-nav installed now.

Adam Buxton’s Bug, The Junction, Cambridge 22nd July 2012

I’ve not been posting much recently, as I’ve been heavily pre-occupied (in a good way) with something else so haven’t had the chance to see or read or listen to much worth reporting on (although I have managed to get through the first season of Game Of Thrones, which provided suitably ludicrous light relief from my labours). I’m about to emerge blinking into the sunlight though, so this blog should start seeing more frequent updates than I’ve managed over the last month.

Something I did make a point of catching though was Adam Buxton’s Bug, a presentation of weird and wonderful videos that started off as an occasional show at the BFI on London’s South Bank and has now graduated to a TV show on Sky Atlantic. I haven’t got access to Sky, but as part of Cambridge’s Comedy Festival Adam appeared at The Junction on Sunday with a ninety minute version of the show.

Bug looks on paper like a pretty lazy concept – essentially a bunch of YouTube clips which don’t have much to do with each other, with some links and anecdotes to hold it together – but Buxton cares about his stuff and has put together an evening that’s both surprisingly slick and hi-tech, and pleasingly down-to-earth and accessible. Not to mention frequently hilarious. He cut his teeth as one half of the legendary Adam & Joe, who spent the 90s making fantastically funny and irreverent TV shows which sent up media pomposity with wit and no small invention, before embarking on a radio career that culminated in their legendary BBC 6music show that’s probably the funniest thing I’ve come across so far this century.

Adam & Joe are on indefinite hiatus while Joe Cornish pursues his promising career as a proper movie director. This is obviously a damn shame but at least Adam’s still around to entertain us with painstakingly collated weirdness and trivia, orchestrated via a Keynote presentation from his MacBook. The bulk of what he shows are videos to accompany terrifyingly cutting-edge dance tracks, and while the music is usually pretty challenging to my ears the visuals are generally eye-poppingly effective. We get retro board games being used to illustrate wave forms before being mutilated and minced, a gang of kids’ harmless shoot-out with toy weapons being transformed into something downright sinister with the addition of cartoon splurges of gore and a South African performance art couple’s bizarre take on an everyday instance of family conflict. Adam provides top quality added value by highlighting and sending up the witless and invariably terribly spelled comments that YouTube viewers have left – he’s irrepressibly exhibitionist in a lovely self-deprecatory way and his range of funny voices is, unusually for a comedian, genuinely hilarious. There are also some home movies and spoofs (Adam’s a pretty competent film-maker and knows some very talented directors so these are much slicker than you might expect from the description), a truly disturbing take on Gordon Ramsay’s inner cell structure, some conceptual art oddities (William Wegman’s synchronised weimaranas are mesmerising) and a piece called City Of Samba that renders the Rio carnival into something that looks like it’s being performed by stop motion models. This last isn’t funny at all but is definitely absolutely extraordinary. If anything there’s too much to take in and your head starts feeling over-stimulated, but the beauty is that you can watch everything again at home at your leisure afterwards. On the basis of this night out I’d recommend you watch the TV show if you’re at all interested in seeing what amazing visuals are possible to achieve with a bit of technology and a lot of imagination.

Richard Herring and Catie Wilkins at The Junction, Cambridge, 26th July 2011

Impromptu visit to the Junction on Tuesday to see two comedians previewing their Edinburgh Festival sets and using the opportunity to generally finetune and work out timings and which bits of their material need sharpening up. Actually, both of these sets seemed pretty much nailed down already. Catie Wilkins presented a well-structured, if slightly tentative, set based mainly on her childhood and her relationship with her parents. She was very likeable and managed to find interesting angles on what you might think is a well-worn subject, along with some funny and engaging anecdotes, but you got the sense that she’s relatively new to stand-up and hasn’t yet developed the attack mechanism a comedian would need if faced with a more restless or beered-up audience than this one. Definitely worth watching though.

No such issues with Richard Herring however, who blasted his way through an hour and a quarter of his new show What Is Love, Anyway? at high speed – very impressive, given the lack of any overlap of material with his previous one Christ On A Bike, which he only finished touring a few weeks ago. The new stuff tends more towards the personal, with several heartfelt but still very funny stories about his family and some imaginative flights of fancy spinning off conversations he’s had with his girlfriend (the Ferrero Rocher pyramid routine is a particular highlight), and his delivery is as robust as ever – there weren’t any hecklers in the house, but you sense that anyone trying to destabilise the show would have been minced quite mercilessly. I’d expected something a lot more formless and improvisatory than this – I’ve got a feeling he’s going to slay them in Edinburgh.

Richard Herring: Christ On A Bike at The Junction, Cambridge 8th April 2011

Richard Herring doesn’t exactly go out of his way to avoid controversy with his choice of titles for his stand-up shows – last year’s excellent Hitler Moustache, which used the Führer’s notorious facial hair as the focus for an exploration of the stupidity of racism, is now succeeded by Christ On A Bike: The Second Coming, a resurrection of his first solo show from 2001. The declared theme of this one is to separate Jesus the man, who was probably a nice enough bloke, from the dogmatic and in some cases decidedly un-Christian attitudes of his more fanatical followers, but it’s really more of a jumping-off point for a host of very funny observations, investigations and flights of fancy on the broad theme of Christianity.

Herring, despite being a declared atheist now, was raised in a Christian household and clearly knows his stuff. This is a tight, well-drilled show, which balances discussion of some of the finer points of inconsistency within the Bible with earthy, irreverent and sometimes wilfully blasphemous comedy. There’s always room in a Herring routine for riffs on deviant sexual practices, for example, but he’s a talented enough writer and performer to allow them to arise neatly from the subject matter and never feel gratuitously shocking. The most impressive sections are when he takes the scripture to task head-on: criticising God’s inelegant sentence construction in the Ten Commandments, and reciting from memory Joseph’s knotty genealogy from the first page of Matthew’s gospel before picking holes in it. The biggest laughs come when he dissects the emails he’s received from Christians concerned that he’s on a fast track to hell because of his mocking of the Lord – he manages to mine a good fifteen minutes of material from one complainant’s bizarre list of people on whom God has taken vengeance for their (laughably minor) sacrilege.

This was a very funny, not to mention impressively researched, show, with a brave choice of subject matter. You just wonder what sacred cows Herring’s going to take on next.

Excursions in right-on comedy: Mark Thomas and Mark Steel

How about this for an exercise in compare-and-contrast: last week I went to two stand-up comedy gigs at The Junction 2 in Cambridge, featuring two marginally-celebrated left-wing London performers of similar age, appearance, accent and name. I even sat in the same seat for both shows. I therefore felt thoroughly equipped to hold forth on the huge similarities and minute differences between their acts that I fully expected to observe. However…

…the two shows were of course completely different. Mark Thomas (who I saw on the Tuesday) was there to give an account on his latest stunt: an attempt to walk the length of the huge security wall that the Israeli government has recently erected within the West Bank in order to eliminate the risk of Palestinian terrorism (or so they say). Thomas is a confident and very funny raconteur, and his story was full of colourful characters and hair-raising anecdotes, often involving misunderstandings and breaches of protocol with the Israeli army. He’s an old hand at playing the cheeky English chappie abroad in order to extricate himself from trouble, but he does relate a couple of episodes where it seems he, his cameraman and his guides were in serious danger of going to jail. Along the way he met many native Palestinians and Jewish settlers and he got a view of both sides of this very divided society, and observed firsthand how the route of the wall has been engineered so that Israeli settlements have been unofficially claimed back into the Jewish state. A large map showing the route of the walk and the boundary of the West Bank was helpfully displayed at the back of the stage, and I came away thinking that I had actually learned something. Thomas has a book coming out soon, and while one suspects that the content of this show was largely lifted word-for-word from it, this was a much more engaging evening than your standard book reading.

In contrast, Mark Steel (who I saw on the Friday) presented a much more interactive and congenial figure. As he tours the country he’s been collecting odd facts and opinions about the towns he’s visiting via Twitter, and a surprisingly large proportion of his show was dedicated to material pertaining to Cambridge. He relished some of the quotes he’d been sent (“I’ve just had a spectacular brunch”) and seemed surprised by the audience’s hostility to punt touts. The show frequently became somewhat free-form as audience members started to realise that Steel positively enjoys riffing on their contributions, and the evening ended up overrunning by about half an hour (I didn’t care). The rest of Steel’s routine consisted of some slightly predictable, but brilliantly delivered, material about the annoyances of modern life (call centres, remote controls, Subway sandwich bars, the Coalition) and some very funny observations of the many places in the United Kingdom he’s taken his act to. He has an amazing facility with accents, and a highly pleasurable way of spinning out absurd metaphors to ridiculous lengths. I laughed long and hard, and have been unexpectedly recalling funny bits for a couple of days now.

So this was always going to be a specious comparison. Both these men are highly talented, concerned and very funny and either would make a fine guest at your next BBQ, but their current shows are really nothing like each other.

Stewart Lee: How I Escaped My Certain Fate

Stewart Lee is currently one of the most critically acclaimed stand-up comedians working in the UK and this book provides a fascinating insight into both his creative processes and the evolution of so-called alternative comedy from the 1980s to the present day. Lee’s act is most assuredly not for everybody: he has a detached, measured and analytical style that could easily be interpreted as smug intellectualism and he enjoys undermining audience’s expectations and occasionally testing the limits of their patience with routines that can take half an hour or more to reach a pay-off. He’s always worth staying with though, for his unusually subtle and non-ingratiating takes on modern culture and for his disarming absurdist humour.

A short description of How I Escaped My Certain Fate makes it sound like a deeply self-indulgent and narcissistic project: the bulk of the book is made of word-for-word transcripts of three of Lee’s shows, complete with running footnotes that probably take up more space in the book that the transcripts themselves. Every “err”, every “um”, every half-finished sentence is painstakingly reproduced. There’s also an introductory essay explaining how Lee got into comedy in the first place and how he gradually worked his way back into stand-up after a period of disillusionment, a couple of sections setting the scene for each individual show, and a few appendices that elaborate on some of the individuals and routines he mentions here. What redeems the book is Lee’s rigorous objectivity and deadpan writing style – he doesn’t do self-deprecation in an aw-shucks manner, but he is brutal in identifying parts of his act that don’t work and his accounts of how routines are honed into shape, with enough details left variable to retain his interest, are fascinating.

The other reason this book is so readable, despite the odd footnote structure which requires a lot of going back and forth, is that these routines are consistently brilliant and frequently hilarious. I think I saw him do two of these shows in Cambridge and it’s a delight to be able to revisit them (his account of his meeting with Christ at the end of “90s comedian” is one of the funniest and most risky bits of comedy I’ve ever seen). It’s also very interesting to read about Lee’s influences and the comedians he admires the most, who tend to be figures on the fringe who never had any particular inclination to make it big: Ted Chippington, Simon Munnery, Michael Redmond.

Stewart Lee is now probably a bigger name than he ever expected or wanted to be, with a second series of his typically uncompromising and intelligent Comedy Vehicle about to be aired by the BBC. Anyone interested in truly challenging (as opposed to just “controversial”) stand-up comedy should make an effort to watch it, to go and see Lee live, and to read this book too.