Posts Tagged ‘comedy’

I genuinely had a special post planned for today. Honest.

But a couple of things have happened in the past 24 hours and that special post will just have to wait until another occasion.

Because I want to write about those two things. Only two of them, but yeah.

First off, because it would just seem wrong not to put him at the top of the post, Neil Innes died.

Apparently he died yesterday from ‘natural causes’ (from which I take to mean that he died in his sleep), but this one hurts.

It does.

(A couple of weeks ago, I did a post on celebrity deaths and said Victoria Wood’s hurt. So does this one for both similar, and entirely different reasons.)

I didn’t know Neil Innes other than to say ‘hello’ to and occasionally chat to. I’d only met him at The Distraction Club when he played there, but I was fortunate enough to be able to chat to him then, whenever he played the club.

I can’t remember when I first heard an Innes song. I’d imagine it was I’m the Urban Spaceman track that I remember hearing first on the radio, and then when my older brother played it again and again. (Mike was a huge fan, about more of which in a moment.)

But yes, Neil Innes was the songwriter behind The Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band

of The Rutles,

And of course, via the Rutles, the writer of the best Beatles songs you never heard….

That last video, of course, at The Distraction Club, where I finally, after years of being a fan, managed to say thank you to him and explain just why I’d enjoyed the previous half hour so bloody much.

My brother Mike, as I’ve said before, played the guitar. With more enthusiasm than talent, I’ll be the first to admit, but he played, and entertained his younger brothers with classic songs, and comedy songs, and sometimes new-words-to-classic-tunes. But it was possibly his enthusiastic performance of the Rutles songs and of the Bonzo’s songs that sealed my love as a child of musical comedy.

And, in 2012, after Neil Innes came off stage, me having sung along quietly to every one of the songs he played…

…I got to tell Neil Innes that, as much as the performance itself, as much as the superb entertainment he’d given a packed club, that for a few moments – just for a few – I’d been swamped, drowned in memories of Michael bashing out his songs.

For just a short while, I was utterly consumed by the recollections of my brother.

Friends know that I’m not really one for showing my emotions, especially not to relative strangers. But there I was, struggling to explain just what he’d done, how grateful I was… with burgeoning tears in my eyes.

Neil stood there, listening, and when I’d stumbled through my explanation, he said the best thing he could possibly have said: “Thank you. Thank you for telling me that.”

I wiped a bit of moisture away, and smiled like a fool… and then we talked comedy for another ten minutes before he got called away for someone else to say thank you to him.

I got to chat to him the next time he played the club as headliner, and he remembered, and we chatted some more about comedy, and musical comedy.

A lovely, lovely, funny, clever, warm man.

There are too many people who die not knowing how well or how much enjoyment their work gave to their fans. I’m glad I got to tell Neil Innes how much it and he had given me.

Also, not for nothing, but I’ve seen Mitch Benn onstage, playing, with umpteen headliners at Distraction Club. I’ve never seen my friend so happy doing so, so filled with unremitting glee throughout, as when he played Rutles songs with Neil Innes.

So, thank you Mr Innes. Thank you for all of the above and thank you for

“I’ve suffered for my art; now, it’s your turn.”

The sad news of Neil Innes didn’t exactly break me today, truth be told.

I was broken much earlier; not by any news item but because, man, did I have a crap night’s sleep last night. I’m probably flattering it to call it a ‘night’s’ sleep, because it wasn’t. By my calculations it was about four hours’ sleep, spread over about seven hours in bed.

As previously mentioned in this venue, I often (usually?) watch an hour or two’s MSNBC before heading to bed, and I’ll often (again, usually?) climb into bed around half-one or close to two am. I’ll read for a bit, eventually yawn, then flick on the audiobook, flick off the light, and place my head on the pillow.

I rarely have problems falling asleep, but the Phenergan I’ve taken for some years will often keep me asleep, for a few hours, at least.

Occasionally, they won’t do the job, and I’ll wake up from a nightmare and…

Oh, yeah, the nightmares. They’ve been going on for years, and it’s only with the help of something¹ to keep me doped up that I don’t – as I used to – wake up every hour or so, then fall asleep, then wake up an hour later, then wash, rinse. repeat.

It’s been some years since I shared a bed with anyone even semi-frequently, but I was informed at the time that it’s almost comically ‘someone having a nightmare on a daytime soap opera‘ when I’m having a bad nightmare. It’s not uncommon I’ll wake with a start, barely remembering the bad dream, just knowing that I had one.

It’s rare, however, that I wake up covered in sweat, heart pounding, and remember every bit, every second, of the nightmare. It’s even rarer that it’ll happen again the same night.

Yeah, you can see where this is going, right?

So I headed for bed last night somewhere around half one. I read for a bit; I’m rereading The Brethren, Bob Woodward and Scott Armstrong’s book about The US Supreme Court. After a bit, I started to yawn, and felt shattered. So I turned on the audiobook for 30 minutes, turned off the light, and quickly fell asleep… around 2:15, I think.

Next thing I know, I’m sitting bolt upright; duvet’s in a mess, my heart pounding like a trip-hammer. I’m soaked through with sweat, the sheet’s damp, if not wet, from it; my foot’s killing me, and I can clearly remember it.

I can remember with crystal clarity being in a courtroom, bound to a stretcher, while my foot is being slowly sawn off; friends were in the gallery, cheering on the surgeon (who’s dressed in lime green scrubs) and there’s a loud grandfather clock in the background…

And now I’m shivering. No idea why, but I am.

I peel myself from the sheet, go and wash my face and towel myself down. Oh, it’s just before 4am, by the way. No point in trying to get straight back to sleep; I mean I need to change the bedding, if nothing else. So I make myself a cuppa, take some painkillers for the foot, watch some telly for 20 minutes, then change the bedding, after which I’m tired again, and try again.

6:20 am. Suddenly I’m awake, face down on the bed, no pillows in sight. Sweaty again, new sheet damp again, heart pounding away. This time it was wild animals (complete with friends’ pets) biting chunks out of me while I’m paralysed, before someone tipped me into a grave and started shovelling earth over me while I was struggling to breathe.

So that was nice.

Why yes, I do sleep alone; why do you ask?

So, yeah, another cuppa, this time a shower rather than a wash, and a second change of bedding; the ‘reserve stuff that’s not as comfortable but there for an emergency’ set.

Eventually I get back to sleep for an hour or so before I wake, feeling like I’ve not slept at all, but not wanting any more sleep.

So, yeah, 2019? Fuck off, will you? Please? Just depart, leave, disappear, go forth and scram. Fuck right off.

Something else… in fact two something elses… tomorrow.


¹for a while it was quetiapine, but docs didn’t want to keep me on it, and eventually we found that 75mg of phenergan does the job, usually.

I’m working on a couple of blog entries that could be controversial and so I want to get them ‘just right’ before I go ahead and post them. In one case, any delay is due to wanting to be sure I’m entirely accurate on a couple of points, so I’m taking a wee bit of extra time to confirm. In the other, it’s me deciding whether or not to his ‘post’. 

And so, while we’re all waiting for me to make up my mind, I’m off out tonight to a regular monthly event, but which will be more event-y than normal. The Christmas Distraction Club. 

The Distraction Club was set up over four years ago now – in April 2011 – by Mitch Benn, together with his band The Distractions (Kirsty Newton and Ivan Sheppard) and Matt Blair. The goal of the club, as they say “is to bring you an unmatched evening of music and comedy that no other night can bring you.”

And they deliver, month in, month out. With guests from Rich Hall to Carly Smallman, and including Ria Lina, Josie Lawrence, Loretta Maine, Arthur Smith, Jay Foreman, Rachel Parris, Jonny and the Baptists, Neil Innes, Guy Pratt and more. 

Usually, the guests will do three or four comedy songs, with the headliner doing half an hour or so. 

For Christmas, however, there are usually 20 or so guests, they all do one song each and the evening always, always overruns. 

And yes, since it started in 201, there have been four previous finalés, with everyone grabbing a line of a Christmas favourite. Here they are from 2011, 2012, and 2013; sadly there wasn’t a great quality 2014 version.

BUT to make up for missing 2014, here’s Kirsty Newton with Bohemian Rhapsody… I’m sure that you’ll agree that more than makes up for it.

 

I’ll be seeing 2015’s show tonight. It will be very very good. 

Back with something more serious, but probably less important, tomorrow.

Yeah, I dunno where to start today.

Chuka Umunna has this morning unstood for the Labour Party leadership after three days, the same length of time it took Nigel Farage to unresign as UKIP party leader. I’m racking my brains for anything I did on Tuesday so I can ‘un‘ it now. Meanwhile, Keir Starmer, the former Director of Public Prosecutions (for the US folks, that’s like the UK’s District Attorney, but unelected) won election as a Labour member of parliament last week and some are seriousky suggesting he run for the party leadership.

Too much to think about; not really in the mood for thinking about it.

So how about something non-political for today’s blog entry? Yes, that’s what I thought: good idea, budgie.

So here, for no reason whatsoever, are some youtube videos, some you’ll have probably seen before, some might be new. Anyway, until tomorrow.

Spot The Stiff – Steve Punt and Hugh Denis explain the best ‘war movie’ game in history.

 

United Breaks Guitars – Fairly self-explanatory, but Dave Carroll explains what happens when he and his band flew United.

 

The Opening to A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum… Comedy Tonight!

 

One of my favourites (and not only just because I’m in it for a second and a half…) Proud Of The BBC by the wonderful Mitch Benn

 

The True Cost of the Royal Family Explained – not funny, per se, but interesting nonetheless.

 

And last, but not least, the classic: Spiders On Drugs

Since I’ve just got back to Edinburgh after a lovely few days in (or is it ‘on’?) Skye, I’ve been thinking of satire. It’s difficult not to think of it in general, to be honest, having several stand up comedians as friends; not all of them would describe themselves as satirists by any means, but enough do.

Long time readers of this blog, and its predecessor, will know that in the dim and distant past, I used to write for – at that time – BBC Radio 4’s main weekly satirical show, WEEKENDING. Did I consider myself a satirist at the time? I’m not entirely sure I did; I just thought of it as a writing job, where part of the commission was to make a satirical point, and another perhaps larger part of the job was to make people laugh. Because that’s the difference between satire and comedy.

My favourite observation on the subject of satire remains that of the late Peter Cook, who said that:

“the purpose of satire isn’t to make the audience laugh; it’s to make them uncomfortable.”

which is very similar to what’s been said by others, about both satire and journalism: that its purpose is to afflict the comfortable and to comfort the afflicted.

(On a tangent, it’s always struck me as similar to what Warren Ellis said about horror: not a direct quote, but something along the lines of great horror doesn’t scare you, but it makes you feel as uncomfortable as hell… Anyway, tangent over. Back to satire.)

During the London run of Beyond The Fringe, it was reported at the time that portions of the audiences walked out at two points; the first won’t surprise you, the second may well do.

One sketch dealt with the futility of war and the necessity, it was felt at one point, for a meaningless sacrifice. Given the relative nearness of the Second World War, it’s perhaps no surprise that some felt angry and upset. However, another sketch poked fun at then Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan. In a memorable line, Cook-as-Macmillan, said “I have been around the world on your behalf… and at your expense.” And some of the audience got up in disgust at the very idea that it was acceptable to have a pop at the Prime Minister.

However, despite the success of satire, Cook was sanguine about its long term consequences, and satire’s ability to influence politics. When he opened The Establishment in London, he was asked whether he thought it would have an effect on the politics of the day. His reply?

Oh, I think it will have as great an effect as the Kit Kat Club did in preventing the rise to power of The Nazi party.

I think that everyone agrees that good satire, like good comedy, punches up. Punching down, taking a pop at those who are already disadvantaged in and by society, and at those who are already the targets of the ignorant, the stupid and the malicious, is seen – quite correctly – as lazy.

When I write “lazy”, I’m not necessarily talking about “playing to the crowd” nor being a “crowd pleaser”. It always puzzles me when comedians are thought of as less valid because their style is popular and when “crowd pleaser” becomes a perjorative criticism. As I wrote above, I’m fortunate enough to know a number of professional stand up comedians. Pleasing a crowd is hard work and if anyone thinks otherwise, they’re welcome to prove to me how easy it is.

But if you agree that satire should always punch up, then how do you decide what constitutes “up”? And who should be entrusted with that decision? There’s the one-size-fits-all description I used a moment ago:

those who are already disadvantaged in and by society, and at those who are already the targets of the ignorant, the stupid and the malicious

However, what about someone in a position of privilege who is unable to punch back? One can argue, for example, that politicians are always fair game; indeed, if you take a look at James Gillray’s cartoons and caricatures from the late 18th and early 19th Centuries, they’re at least as vicious and just plain nasty as anything Spitting Image ever produced. And his weren’t the only ones…

Take a look at this cartoon. The subject? Our first Prime Minister, Robert Walpole.

And this, from the time of William Pitt the Younger, about the Bank of England policy to do with the bank only circulating paper notes from then on, instead of honouring amounts in gold coinage. Rumors circulated that the Bank’s coin was merely being held in reserve to send to the Continent in support of and to finance the war.

The bank, portrayed as an elderly virgin, says:

‘Murder! Murder! Rape! Murder! O you villain! What, have I kept my honour so long to have it broke up by you at last? O murder! Rape! Ravishment! Ruin! Ruin! Ruin!!!’

Where did you think the nickname of the Bank of England of The ‘Old Lady of Threadneedle Street’ came from?

So, politicians are fair game, and banks and bankers always have been. Each of those, and individual examples of those, can hit back, of course. It wasn’t unusual, in the times of Spitting Image, for the politicians to comment that the puppets of course, of course, were wonderful, but the scripts were peurile and just flatly inaccurate. Such responses were always common when Yes, Minister and its sequel were broadcast. Politicians always said that the series got the civil service spot on but were unfair to politicians. And those civil servants who would comment, usually off the record, of course said the reverse, that Yes, Minister got the politicians exactly right, but were woefully inaccurate about the civil service. The same comments once again came to the fore when The Thick Of It was on television.

So, what about the Royal Family? They are surely fair game; exemplars of privilege, the epitome of inherited privilege in fact. And from the eighteenth century onwards (maybe before) satirists have been taking a pop at them. But is it punching up to do so… when they can’t hit back? Constitutionally, I suppose, there’s nothing actually stopping them doing so, but they don’t. They can’t. They just… can’t. And on the rare occasions when it’s let slip that a cartoon or a piece has been received with great hurt, there’s something faintly icky about both the piece and the reaction.

Once again, who decides what punching up actually constitutes? Would satire written by someone with fewer advantages in life be inherently more satirical than something written by someone from a solidly-middle class background? Are there targets that would be considered ‘punching up’ by some but not ‘punching up’ if someone from another background wrote exactly the same piece?

Because that would imply, horribly, that there’s a class structure to satire beyond the targets themselves; that the quality of satire depends upon the origins and lack of privilege of the satirist. And that’s something I suspect Peter Cook would have had problems with… and not for the first time, I’d be in complete agreement with him.

While I appreciate the need for any comedian to speedily feel comfortable with the audience they’re in front of, there’s a type of stand up routine I loathe.

If you’ve seen more than a couple of comedians live, you’ll probably recognise the setup: the comic comes out onto the stage, takes a quick look around the room, says some quick opening remarks, and then asks a member of the audience “Hey, you, where you from? What’s your job? Is that your girlfriend?”

And he mocks the place the audience member calls home. And/or the job. And/or the girlfriend. Not one joke, but several – he gets the audience to laugh at – not along with, but at – the poor shmuck who was unfortunate enough to reply.

And – and here’s what gets me – if the man or woman being picked on doesn’t laugh right along with it… it’s somehow their fault.

And now they’re part of the act.

It’s cruel, nasty humour of the cheapest kind.

And what’s more, if the comedian has pulled the audience into his act when he wants them there, I’m not sure he has any moral authority to complain at hecklers when the audience pushes themselves into his act when they want to be there.

I’ve seen comics go from audience member to audience member making one quick gag, and then moving on. That’s not what I’m talking about – it’s when there’s one, or maybe two, people in the audience that the comedian is picking on. Continually. Going back to refer to them during the act, or especially the compère.

And picking on them.

Because that’s what it is – picking on someone who can’t (either because of the situation, or simply because they’re too scared to) give back as good as they get.

And if they do respond… well, I’ve never seen it end prettily.

I enjoy stand up comedy, but I pay to see the comedian make me laugh. Picking on people doesn’t make me laugh, and given the number of comics who say that they were picked on at school, you’d think they’d know better.