Cluub Zarathustra: British Comedy’s Best-Kept Secret

Originally published at The British Comedy Guide


Listen up. I want to tell you about the best-kept secret of ’90s British comedy.

In the mid-nineties there was a thing called Cluub Zarathustra. On the surface it was a weekly London comedy club, but it was also something of a self-contained phenomenon, which meant it would be exported twice to the Edinburgh Festival and would eventually land a big-budget telly pilot at Channel 4.

The club (or Cluub) saw some of the most exciting, experimental and downright weird comedy to ever grace the fringe. This is not hyperbole. Traditional stand-up was banned, and over the years it would feature sketches, opera, pyrotechnics, stunts, melting ice, and jelly in the shape of human faces.

Thousands of fans attended over the years. These brave souls were shouted at, insulted, drooled on, physically carried around, graffitied with lipstick, and had secret messages burnt onto their retinas with flash guns. Probably not your typical night out in Islington.

Presided over by Simon Munnery as ‘The League Against Tedium’ (a sort of homemade Caligula-come-panto dame) and populated by a stable of misfit savants like Roger Mann, Stewart Lee, Kevin Eldon, Julian Barratt, Sally Phillips, Kombat Opera and Johnny Vegas, all banned from covering traditional comedy formats, the flavour of entertainment on offer was very weird.

Perhaps the weirdest thing however, is that Cluub Zarathustra remained comedy’s best kept secret for the next fifteen or so years. For all the avant-garde performance, the public sadism, the famous entertainers on the roll-call, for all of the people who visited the Cluub, and for the remarkable experiences they had there, the Cluub was all but forgotten when it finally closed its portcullis in 1997.

Simon Munnery became one of the Fringe’s finest and most respected performers. Stewart Lee became very famous for his live stand-up and for the televised Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle. Sally Phillips went on to do Smack the Pony. Julian Barratt teamed up with Noel Fielding to give us The Mighty Boosh. Kombat Opera’s Richard Thomas went on to create Jerry Springer – The Opera. Roger Mann escaped from comedy and went to live abroad.

Many of the ideas that lead to such famous comedy milestones were tenderly incubated here at Cluub Zarathustra.

Because of the mystery surrounding such an amazing comedy anomaly, I was desperately keen to find out about it. There were no official recordings, no bootlegs, very few press reviews, and given that it happened before big comedy industry and widespread internet fandom, there was hardly any documentation about it at all. The only way I could find out more would be to ask the people who saw it, and the people who were in it.

In 2010, I decided to interview Stewart, Simon, Roger and others from Cluub Zarathustra’s inner sanctum to find out exactly what went on at the Cluub and how its legacy would bleed into the comedy scene we know and love today. I would also track down a few audience members who were able to dredge up their recollections of Cluub Zarathustra as if they were repressed abuse memories. And then I put it all together in a book.

The book is called You Are Nothing and is published by that wonderful comedy media kitchenette, Go Faster Stripe.

Given that it was such a long time ago and most of the participants were drunk at the time, this is probably the wonkiest and least reliable history book ever written. But it’s all we have. So read it and shut up.

Buy the book here.

Cluub Zarathustra: British Comedy’s Weirdest Secret

Originally published at Splitsider

“I had no idea who he was,” says Marc Maron on WTF. “I had to do a cram course on him… I felt like an idiot because I don’t know much about British comedy.” He was referring to Stewart Lee: one of Britain’s most interesting and integral stand-ups, perhaps best known for his against-the-grain demeanour and deadpan delivery. In a later episode, Maron also meets Lee’s contemporary, Simon Munnery, described on the podcast, not unfairly, as “different”. For the duration of both interviews, Maron seems simultaneously baffled and delighted, like a baby coming to terms with a heron.

There’s a certain flavour of British comedy – perhaps epitomised by Munnery and Lee – that has never successfully exported to North America. Goodness knows we’ve tried. We’ve sent it to your comedy festivals. We’ve tried to get it on your telly. We’ve even had small victories by smuggling our writers into films like Borat and shows like Veep. But for all our efforts, the kind of comedy I’m talking about has never been taken to the American bosom, preferring to embrace, as you do, mechanical bulls and Toddlers in Tiaras instead. That’s what you like.

So what is this weird comedy? Well, we might call it ‘alternative’ if we’re being generous, but ‘alternative alternative’ would be more accurate: a secret comedy lineage of names like Richard Herring, Waen Shepherd, Dave Thompson, Tom Binns, and Sally Phillips. But it all started with Cluub Zarathustra.

Cluub Zarathustra was a midnight London cabaret show dedicated to atypical and experimental comedy. It was set up by Simon Munnery and his comedian friend Roger Mann. Stewart Lee joined the team a little later, along with a comic actor called Kevin Eldon. Simon hosted in-character as The League Against Tedium: a pantomimish Nietzschean dictator whose bizarre pronouncements (“A punch in the gob lets a fat man know his status!”) set the tone for the evenings. At the Cluub, straight stand-up was verboten and the performers were encouraged to branch out into avant-garde areas of performance. “We aim to fascinate, not entertain” was their backstage mantra.

Over the years, Cluub Zarathustra saw skits so outlandish that they’d have stumped even Monty Python. It would have been more at home in a pre-war Berlin cabaret bar, but even that doesn’t fully capture the tone. It was as wonky as a homemade spice rack, yet it was daring, experimental and ultra-modern. It saw opera, pyrotechnics, dangerous stunts, melting ice, weird short films, high-tech gadgets, and a selection of gelatin desserts shaped like human faces.

The audience were tormented en-masse by The League Against Tedium and his assorted minions. They were shouted at through bullhorns, insulted, drooled upon, physically carried around, graffitied with lipstick, and forced to wear demeaning hats. “You Are Nothing,” they were told. And, apparently, they loved it.

A genius thing about Cluub Zarathustra was the way they dealt with hecklers. One such method (still talked about by comedians today) was “The Cunt Ray”.

“It was known as the Cunt Ray,” says Simon Munnery, “but it was [actually] called the Self-Knowledge Impregnator. ‘Cunt Ray’ ruins the surprise of the joke.”

If someone heckled, a siren would sound, Munnery would shout “Activate the Self-Knowledge Impregnator!” and a large black box would be carried on stage. The device was equipped with a camera flash bulb behind a cleverly stencilled sheet of gauze. They’d point the device at the heckler and – boom! – it would burn the word “CUNT” onto their retina. “It’s probably illegal nowadays,” says Munnery, “Health and safety.”

Cluub Zarathustra started a chain reaction which lead to the development of much of the best British comedy of recent years, including the controversial Jerry Springer The Opera. Cluub Zarathustra is, quite simply, where it all began.

It’s a terrible injustice that nobody knows about it. Even though some of the biggest players in current British comedy were involved (Johnny Vegas, Harry Hill, and Graham ‘IT Crowd’ Linehan to name but a few), and thousands of people saw their shows in London and at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival between 1994 and 1997, hardly anyone can remember that Cluub Zarathustra ever happened. It never got filmed (aside from an unbroadcast pilot, which didn’t really work) and it was before the days of digital posterity. Thanks to a weird incident involving a PhD researcher being committed to a psychiatric hospital, even the original scripts and photography were lost. The only way you’d ever hear about the Cluub was if you were lucky enough to meet someone who saw the show or someone who was in it. So that’s what I did, thoroughly and systematically. I interviewed everyone I could find with a connection to the show – comedians, audience members, theatre critics, TV producers – and I wrote about it in a book.

So, yeah. If you’re interested in tragically obscure, outrageously experimental, and deeply influential British comedy, why not buy my book? Please buy my book. I need this. Sorry about the Toddlers in Tiaras thing.

You Are Nothing by Robert Wringham is out now. It is published by Go Faster Stripe, a Welsh media production company who specialise in DVDs, CDs, and books by comedians who tend to be overlooked by the mainstream. Robert Wringham is an English comedian, writer, and magazine editor currently living in Montreal.

Thom Tuck Goes Straight to DVD

Originally published at The British Comedy Guide

Walt Disney’s Lion King 3, Thom Tuck explains, is a straight-to-video ‘parallelquel’ alternately known as Lion King 1½. That is, it’s a non-cinematic entry into the Lion King movie franchise, the events of which, unlike those of a sequel or a prequel, take place alongside the timeline of the original. Got it? To make matters even more confusing for the film’s presumably pre-teen intended audience, there is a fourth-wall-breaking storyline in which Lion King characters watch The Lion King in a cinema and are eventually joined by Mickey Mouse, Snow White and a parade of other popular characters in a universe-crossing meltdown of all natural laws.

I listen to Thom’s review with slack-jawed incredulity. How can a production from a studio as prestigious as Disney be so staggeringly and weirdly bad? I struggle to believe it and vow to check Wikipedia for verification. But, of course, it is all too real, and so are the other fifty-three cash-in productions covered by Thom in the show. Like a comedy Joseph Smith, it is very much to his credit that he discovered this plethora of non-canonical oddness and saw fit to bring it along for analysis.

These reports from the strange world of the Disney spin-off are tremendously entertaining, especially when performed with such cartoonish charisma, but there’s an unfortunate expectation that we have intimate knowledge of the more iconic Disney films. There’s even a Little Mermaid singalong, to which I think we’re genuinely expected to know the lyrics. To be fair, the show’s marketing has attracted a number of Disney fans to the room but many of us (including a woman lambasted for not knowing what The Return of Jafar might be) are left a little alienated.

The Disney analysis is complemented by seemingly real stories from Thom’s past, each about how a girl “broke his heart”. The two narrative strands dovetail nicely without explicitly crossing over and so form a nicely opaque storytelling device. Unfortunately, his romantic gestures leave us a tad cold: we would gladly have been entertained by his neediness if he’d demonstrated more awareness of it, but it appears we’re supposed to sympathise. Through this miscalculation, these sections end up feeling a bit creepy.

An excellent one-man show, albeit compromised by the unnecessary opening of a romantic Ark of the Covenant. Instead, I could have stood to hear more about the parallelquel world of Tarzan II, which apparently takes place not just alongside the original movie but inside one of its songs: an extraordinarily clever thing to drag into the comedy arena.

Markus Birdman: Dreaming

Originally published at The British Comedy Guide

It is an almost exclusively female crowd at Markus Birdman‘s penultimate Fringe 2011 performance. Most of the room has been booked by a single hen party and they are in high spirits. As we file into the venue, their ringleader says something about “hiding the weed”, and the ticket collector sighs the sigh of a man getting ready to bounce his one-hundredth drunk of the month. But the Festival is almost over and we can all go home soon.

Fortunately, the tipsy audience and the arse-end-of-the-fringe-effect are not problems for Rockabilly dad Markus Birdman, who is an extraordinarily likable and energetic performer. Something that sets him apart from many other comics is that his act is not built on vitriol but on a kind of spiritual generosity. He’s willing to let things go. Even when he talks about existential disappointments or feigns frustration with his mid-life lot, he doesn’t seem particularly bitter. It is refreshing to spend time in the company of an act who is neither fizzingly excited about an issue or on a mission to set everything right. He discusses various sources of urban dissatisfaction, but it doesn’t seem to compromise the gleeful pleasure he takes in so many of the world’s good things.

Structurally, the show is a tad wonky. I’m not sure whether the kernel is supposed to be a personal life reassessment after his fortieth birthday and coincident life-threatening stroke or whether it was a lecture about following your dreams. Did one inform the other? I wasn’t sure. This doesn’t particularly matter: the show is less of a concept album than a gentle romp through the events that have characterised Birdman’s year.

Particularly pleasing is a routine about how he mistook his stroke for a hangover. He says there is something wrong about our British urban lifestyle when waking up partially-sighted is conceivably the result of a night on the piss. Tonight’s swigged-up audience are evidence of this problem, contributing non-sequiturs and making weird remarks, but Markus handles the squiffy women with a gentlemanly charm and ease.

Each chapter of the show is introduced by a pre-recorded jingle, each of which is low-fi and clownish and very funny. An impressive outing for the Birdman.

Asher Treleaven: Matador

Originally published at The British Comedy Guide

Clown Prince Asher Treleaven doesn’t like racism. But, ever the pedant, what really angers him is inaccurate racism. When someone wishes him luck “eating dog meat and hanging out with Chinks” in Vietnam, Asher is too shocked and afraid of confrontation to point out that the correct slur is actually “Gooks”. There’s little worse in life than erroneous bigotry.

This is why Asher created The Matador: a superhero capable of challenging surprise encounters with racists. Alas, The Matador’s faux-Spanish accent and impressively bulging crotch implicate the character as a stereotype, signalling that even the most well-meaning of us can be, unexpectedly, a tiny bit racist.

Asher is the ambassador of a delightfully homemade world. His circus-schooled prancing and precision preening takes place on a set made from greengrocer grass, plastic roses, a garden gnome and a lawn flamingo. In a story about being lost in the Vietnamese jungle while wearing nothing but a pair of swimming trunks, he reports that scooching along the floor of such a jungle results in “crud and ants and biscuit crumbs” being collected in the trunks. Somehow, it is perfectly reasonable to expect biscuit crumbs on the jungle floor of Asher’s mind.

For all his lampooning of traditional comedy stylings (“Hey shit head. Hey dick leg. Where do you work? Fuckin’ shit place?” he says to nobody in particular on the front row) he is a surprising dab-hand with observational comedy. He points out in a very throwaway fashion that sheep have human teeth. If you think about it, sheep really do have human teeth. But how did he notice that? And how do we recognise it?

Perhaps the show’s stand-out set-piece is a song about rednecks to the famous show tune, My Favourite Things. Not only is the unexpected musical number a comprehensively-researched list of slurs, it is a fairly breathtaking feat of memory.

Matador tackles the important issues of racism and tolerance head-on, but surrounds them entertainingly with a surreal hedge maze of playful stories and one-liners. A well-handled and enjoyable fourth solo show.

Josie Long: The Future is Another Place

Originally published at The British Comedy Guide

For a few years, hand-knitted Josie Long has been tickling our fancies with her brand of fluttery whimsy. Today’s audience of hipsters and their mums perch upon their seat edges in delighted anticipation as Josie coasts through an unusual live pre-set: an ad-libbed commentary on the progress of the pre-set itself and a “sodcast” of naff hip-hop music played through a phone. It is disorientating good fun to enter a show on time but for the performance to have already begun.

For this year’s show, Josie weaves sincere political discourse into the fancy. The Future is Another Place is about her ongoing attempt to engage with politics, especially left-wing activism, and what this means to her as a comedian. She worries that her new-found political rage has compromised her style as a stand-up, but there’s nothing trite about her anger and it adds an interesting edge to an otherwise optimistic persona. It feels like watching a bright-eyed Richard Scarry character chance across a rusting machine from a forgotten war.

Her time spent investigating Tory policy, she tells us, was a waste of time. “I used to think that the Tories were cunts,” she says, and her research only confirmed her suspicions. “Why are you cutting funding to the libraries? Isn’t that just about children reading?!”

She reports on her experiences at UK Uncut protests; on her anger at the coalition government’s ongoing attempts to destroy all that is decent and reasonable (“Don’t take away children’s wheelchairs! That’s like what a Bond villain would do!”); and on her inspiring correspondence with one of the Black Panthers. She fondly quotes a Black Panther press conference: “We say to pigs: Daddy, we will not be held to ransom. The people’s law is lovelier than lovely”.

Perhaps the most memorable segment, however, is not political at all, but a startling account of her near-death motorway accident earlier in the year. The accident involved logs falling from the back of a moving lorry and an off-road skid through an old woman’s greenhouse. That she’s able to wring humour and useful narrative out of such a harrowing personal event is testament to her skills as a performer. When she later notices that her shoes have come off and the police officers aren’t talking to her, she worries that it’s a Sixth Sense-style ghost bluff: “This is classic dead-and-don’t-realise-it”, she says.

Charming, life-affirming and frequently devastating, Josie’s new show is essential Fringe viewing.

Simon Munnery: Hats Off to the 101ers (And Other Material)

Originally published at The British Comedy Guide

“Jesus!” gasps the woman sitting next to me as Simon Munnery‘s home-made canopy-like structure leans perilously toward the audience. It is all perfectly safe, of course, and Munnery points out that his expensive insurance policy means he can take out five of us and still have change. It’s all going to be fine.

There’s a frisson in the room as Munnery begins his performance not on stage but behind us, strumming an electric guitar and singing about the 101ers: the ambitious but doomed crew of a 1929 experimental airship. The titular segment doesn’t last long, but it’s a riotous start to the show.

Next, Simon erects the above-mentioned canopy over the stage. Seemingly made of kitchen wine racks, the whole thing concertinas spectacularly over and around him. At first, it seems impressively erected with a simple motion; but then there’s some fumbling and muttering as Simon tries to attach the safety guy-wire to the ceiling. The canopy flops around and, for a while, we’re all genuinely unsure if it’s going to collapse into our astonished faces. After being teased by the theatrical prospect of a pop-up set, this engineered anticlimax is hilarious and a perfect view into Simon’s messy but beautiful mind. “It took months to make,” he says, “Now I’ve just got to figure out what it’s for”.

The rest of the show is a boneshaker ride through some of Simon’s best recent work: a seedy lecture from a seemingly unaccredited and misogynistic professor of women’s studies is a standout moment; and a puppet show about Jesus’ neighbours at the Crucifixion is truly an evergreen.

The entire is a patchwork of eccentric ideas, flights of fancy, and bogglingly brilliant aphorisms. There are funny props including another of his trademark mechanical hats, though he’s anything but a prop comic: while wearing the outlandish topper, he delivers one-liners and short stories that leave you in puzzled awe over the train of thought that could possibly have lead to them. “My dad is a speaking edition of the Daily Mail. Only extracts though, or we’d rent him out to the blind.”

Beautiful, ramshackle and odd, Munnery’s new show is a chance window into a rare mind. Go along to see the best of a performer at the top of his game and learn what rhymes with “zeppelins”.

Standup Comedy in Glasgow

Originally published at Visit Glasgow

If, like me, you’re a scowling misanthrope who hates all music, art and sport, you might want to try some standup comedy. The main joy of comedy is in the jazz-like poise of a performer’s delivery but, if you’re lucky, they might talk about cocks as well. Brilliant.

Glasgow is a good city in which to enjoy comedy, partly because of the great clubs and brilliant native comedians but also because of Glasgow’s unique combination of civic pride and self depreciation; and its historic local politics: fertile ground for standup comedy.

The Glasgow comedy “scene” (kill me) is overshadowed by two main forces: Jongleurs and The Stand. Jongleurs is a nightclub-style venue in the city centre where you can expect to see fairly mainstream acts followed by a disco and a midnight sense of loneliness and despair. Ideal for office, hen and stag parties.

If you prefer to see real comedy from comedians, both resident and touring, who work hard and don’t leave you feeling hollow and bereft, The Stand is probably the best bet.

Unlike the Wetherspoony Jongleurs, The Stand has only two clubs – one in Glasgow and one in Edinburgh – so it maintains a degree of independence and the comedy experience doesn’t feel mass produced. As venues, they are dedicated exclusively to standup comedy, making the atmosphere conducive to only one thing. The result is a nurturing environment for the performers and the feeling amongst the audience that something unique and never-to-be-seen-again might unfold. Every Sunday, Michael Redmond compares a package show of local and imported acts: Michael himself is a hero of comedy (adored by Graham Linehan and Stewart Lee and plagiarised by the Pasquale family) and it is a great privilege to be able to see him, not just occasionally, but on any given Sunday at The Stand.

The Stand is undoubtedly the best venue for comedy in the city (and frankly one of the best in the whole UK), but there are other fringe venues worth exploring in Glasgow too. Many local bars and cafes run comedy nights: a particularly good one is the ‘Comedy Womb’ at The State bar on Holland Street. Although the club only runs once a week and doesn’t have the heritage of The Stand, the acts are usually pretty good and are angled unpatronisingly toward a comedy-literate audience. This is a good place to catch newer acts. Speaking of which, don’t be put off by the idea of a ‘new acts’ night. A person who has the guts to work a comedy room for the first time will have honed a very tight and intelligent ten minutes: beginners are too nervous to go out there with a half-baked set. Another great opportunity to see newer acts is to try The Stand’s Tuesday night cabaret of new acts, Red Raw.

If the beery atmosphere of a comedy club is not your bag, it’s worth keeping an eye on the programmes of arts centres such as The Arches beneath Central Station and the Centre for Contemporary Arts (CCA) on Sauchihall Street. Ian Macpherson’s “DiScomBoBuLaTe” is a monthly cabaret of comedians and writers, currently based at The Arches and previously at the CCA. You’ll not get any drunken heckling at this sort of event and you’ll get to see some of the country’s top writer-performers: past guests have included Alasdair Gray, Liz Lochead, A. L. Kennedy and Arnold Brown to name but a few. Further west, look out for the infrequent but excellent OMG! night at Gibson Street’s Offshore coffee shop at which a combo of seasoned performers and ‘real people’ read from their teenage diaries. Earnest performances and, instead of beer, you can have a nice cup of tea.

If you want to see a mainstream giant such as Peter Kay, The Mighty Boosh or Glasgow’s own Frankie Boyle, you’re most likely to catch them at the nearby SECC, a capacious venue famous for having the shape of a giant Dasypodidae. You can also try BBC Scotland where they film comedy pilots and require a studio audience. This often means free tickets to see very famous comedians and their less-famous but often talented warm-up acts.

The Glasgow Comedy Festival, though very fledgling compared to other comedy festivals, is an annual crossing of comedy leylines and a great opportunity to catch big names like Stewart Lee, Simon Munnery and Jerry Sadowitz, himself a Glaswegian whose act leaves you feeling as though you’ve had your brain snogged during open-skull surgery (a good thing). While some comedians trade on the mostly imagined rivalry between Glasgow and Edinburgh, the two cities can be of mutual benefit to one another as far as comedy is concerned: during the internationally renowned Edinburgh Festival, many London acts will take advantage of their being so far north and will also perform at Glasgow, especially at The Stand, for a mere sheckle.

It would be a shame to leave Glasgow without taking advantage of the diverse and brilliant standup it has to offer. Go and see Michael Redmond at The Stand on a Sunday evening and take it from there.

Simon Munnery

Originally published at The Skinny

Simon Munnery is not one of us. “I iz not spaeking lick yo; cos I iz nit lick yo,” he says on one of his bizarre CDs. If he’s not lambasting audiences by making them wear dunces caps or performing an entire show with a bucket on his head, he’s hiding behind a range of equally strange personas: the Banksy-like Alan Parker or the kettle-hat wearing ‘League Against Tedium’ being two of his most celebrated.

Odd then that today’s set at The Stand largely consisted of straight stand-up comedy: one man and his mic. In clothes seemingly borrowed from David Baddiel, he relates a five-minute beery anecdote about the characters in his local pub. Where was the terror we had expected? Maybe he’s one of us after all.

After some interesting new material (including a sketch about a trainee chef abusing an aubergine), there was a comfortable return to form as Munnery dons his well-travelled tweed hat for The True Confessions of Sherlock Holmes: a brilliant monologue exposing the world’s most famous detective as a coke-addled accidental success. “Yes, it was him what done it and here’s why!”

Munnery is a pleasure to watch in any of his guises and it was fun to see him perform largely without props, using only his sharp wit and analyses of everyday situations to get the laughs.

Richard Herring, The Headmaster’s Son

Originally published at

By his own confession, Richard Herring is a dick. A lazy, needy, Guitar Hero-playing dick. But why? In this show, he rifles through his childhood memories in order to find out what could have possibly made him turn out like this. The working hypothesis: that his dad was his school headmaster.

Surely the embarrassment of the whole school knowing that Rich was the swatty son of the headmaster would have a lasting effect; that the repression of such trauma would have to come to the surface in some form.

Apparently not. Rich’s dad was respected and adored by everyone in the school and in the local community. Rich, on the other hand, was a dick from day one: always the conformist, always childish, always spouting half-baked political ideas and never taking off his school blazer. It turns out that he has nobody to blame but himself.

Thankfully his being a dick only adds to this show. His pedantic ramblings and penchant for playing out a homespun theory to the nth degree has always been an important part of his stage persona.

Last year in these very pages I wrote, “how he’ll top Oh Fuck I’m 40� is anyone’s guess but I imagine that he’ll implode somehow like a supermassive star finally inverting and turning into a black hole”.

This has happened. Gone are the midnight-black ideas and the pushing of boundaries to a feverpitch. In their place is a rather lovely piece about love, honesty, embracing life and the struggles of growing up.

There’s still some stuff in there about “wanking off paedophiles” though. Well, it wouldn’t be Richard Herring without at least one thing to tempt you into walking out in disgrace.

The Headmaster’s Son is a top-notch performance full of winding digressions, sweet realisations and charming confessions. Five stars et cetera.

Arnold Brown Presents Happiness: The Search Continues

Originally published at The Groggy Squirrel

“I was walking along a street in Glasgow…” starts Arnold Brown.

And then he pauses. Somewhere inside your head, a clock ticks heavily. Flowers bloom, wither and die. Civilisations rise and fall. Entire galaxies fade from the night sky as their component stars expire one by one.

It’s a very long pause.

”… as I have every right to do”.

The crowd falls about.

Other comedians have used the long pause to great effect – Norman Lovett, Stewart Lee, Jack Dee – but none of them have nailed it quite like Arnold.

He is often described as ‘the comedian’s comedian’. Indeed, some of his routines are about comedy: bizarre digressions about whether the character in his joke was a real person or not; the fessing up to certain events having never happened. “Sometimes,” he says, “comedians lie.”

Arnold is probably most famous for personally hatching Alternative Comedy in the 1980s and raising the bastard chicken as his own. He showed up in ‘The Young Ones’ and in the original ‘Comic Strip’ film and the subsequent ‘Comic Strip’ television series. He narrates documentaries about comedy, has worked with the likes of Armando Iannucci, John Cleese and Frank Sinatra for goodness sake.

Ian Macpherson, special guest to Arnold in ‘Happiness’, is of similar stature. He won the first ever Time Out comedy award, the only ever Simon Munnery comedy award and is probably the only Irish comedian of his generation not to appear on ‘Father Ted’.

A pleasure then, to see these gentlemen perform side by side. Well, not quite side by side: Ian goes on first to conduct his unique brand of rabble-rousing and Arnold follows to try to calm everybody down.

Ian’s finale – a lengthy song from his Catholic musical, ‘Seventeen Brides for Seventeen Brothers’ – is a marvel to behold.

Arnold’s morality tale about sex with sheep will literally make you cry.

New comedians should be forced, at gunpoint if necessary, to come to Edinburgh and watch Ian and Arnold strut their respective stuffs. ‘Happiness: the search continues’ is a masterclass in comedy technique.

Wil Hodgson – Straight Outta Chippenham

Originally published at The Skinny

There is a fine line between comedy and therapy; you fart your vulnerabilities, fetishes and phobias into the room and hope for the best. Wil’s problem seems to be that he can never fit in: his coveted membership of skinhead society is marred by his house full of Care Bear and My Little Pony toys; his acceptance into Care Bear society (if there is such a thing) is scuppered by the fact he’s a 30-something pink-haired Punk Hulk. A Shrek-like figure, Wil is scary from a distance but adorable up close. His set is about vulnerability, acceptance, truth and honesty. He’s also the first to admit that his routine is less ‘stand up’ and more a documenting of the trials of his tragic character. He doesn’t seem too worried if no one is laughing, bringing to mind the Ted Chippington school of anti-comedy. “This is the sort of thing I have to contend with on a daily basis,” he says. This would actually be a good name for the show, since it is basically a listing of precisely that. You’ve missed him now though, you fools. Buy his DVD. It’s on the trendy GoFasterStripe label along with Stewart Lee and Lucy Porter, which speaks volumes about his style.

John Shuttleworth: With My Condiments

Originally published at The Skinny

I’m the chef from Sheffield. Gonna teach you how to eat. John Shuttleworth presenting a show about food admittedly sounded like a step too far, even to a fan. But within minutes, all cynicism was vanquished. With My Condiments turned out to be the pure brilliance we should have expected all along.

John Shuttleworth is played by character actor, Graham Fellows. His comedy roots go back to a 1978 record release under the alias ‘Jilted John’ and, even more interestingly, to the orbit of Frank Sidebottom’s Oh Blimey Big Band. Here at The Skinny we don’t like to use the expression ‘living legend’ lightly but it seems fitting to apply it to this Yamaha-brandishing Northerner.

The key to Graham Fellows’ brilliance lies in sincerity. Unlike Steve Coogan or Chris Morris, no attempt is made to deride his own character. Alan Partridge is framed as an idiot but John Shuttleworth is just a vulnerable dafty. Fellows’ loves John Shuttleworth for what he is – and so do we.

The food theme in the show is fairly tangential and as John points out, he’s not qualified to talk about it at all: his wife is a school dinnerlady but she’s mainly employed to anticipate scuffles in the queue. Instead, we enjoy a catalogue of new songs and the hallmark cod philosophies: “Some people say ‘tuna mayonnaise’ instead of ‘tuna mayo’ and that angers me”.

John’s audience seems to consist largely of bald men on their own. Some of them have furtively brought along their own interval snacks.

His best song used to be “We see Betty Turpin, only when she’s workin'” but in the new show he has twice surpassed himself with “I can’t go back to savoury now (I’m halfway through me puddin’)” and “Two margarines on the go (it’s a nightmare scenario)”. The two margarines situation is one that affects us all. Finally someone has had the courage to address this.

Scottish Comedian of the Year 2007 final

Originally published at The Skinny

Scotland has brought us some truly immortal comedy institutions: the Edinburgh Fringe, Ivor Cutler, Billy Connelly and those see-you-jimmy hats. A Scottish comedy awards ceremony would certainly be more enjoyable to attend than, say, a Cornish one. Rory McGrath can only spread his talent so far.

And enjoyable it was. Personal favourites were resident Australian Rowan Campbell and Glasgow’s uninominal Teddy. Rowan’s routine looked at how Australians are often seen dismissed as a nation of petty convicts (“Quick, hide the bread”) and featured a marvellously twisted explanation of how the incriminating indiscretion of his Scottish ancestor was actually a powerful political statement. I’ll leave it to your imagination to figure that one out.

Teddy’s routine about an emasculating sexual encounter, which decency forbids we go into here, felt far more honed and refined than many of the night’s acts. While other performers would frequently flutter between unrelated one-liners and a wide sample of random (but undeniably funny) gags, Teddy focused on one perfectly orated story and hung his jokes off it expertly. This is the skill of a talented, thoughtful humourist.

A theme of the night, quite rightly, was critic-baiting. The large audience would periodically boo the X Factor-style judging panel. YouTube’s famous ‘Wee Man’ berated Chortle’s Steve Bennett for a bad review. “Just another chav act!” he spat angrily, “No, Steve! It’s another fucking NED act!”

The winner of the ‘Big Banana Boots’ trophy was newcomer Sean Grant for some great material about his ugly son. Second and third prizes went to Greenock’s Jay Lafferty (the shortlist’s only comedienne) and Aberdeen’s Gus Tawse whose act includes a great skit about the death of his wife – “I can’t help but think I’m partly responsible. I beat her to death with a shovel”.

All in all, this was a great showcase of Scotland’s up-and-coming talent. Look out for them all at the Glasgow comedy festival in March.

John Hegley : Letters to an earwig

Originally published at The Groggy Squirrel.

A slight melancholy hangs over the Royal Mile this morning: the last day of the Edinburgh festival. There are lots of hangovers from those whose last performance is done and dusted but a few eager drama students still hand you their flyers in a final act of financial desperation. Posters are being taken down. The Underbelly is closed. The various free stages have been packed away. The city is partied out.

Time to take in one last show though. Something gentle. Something that will definitely be funny. Something that will be a high note to end on but won’t make my delicate head hurt anymore than it does already. The answer is simple: John Hegley at the Pleasance.

Hegley’s style is probably best described in the titles to his various poetry books: ‘These were your father’s’; ‘My dog is a carrot’; ‘Can I come down now, Dad?’; and ‘Five Sugars Please’.

A guy has brought his dog into the venue. Hegley isn’t fazed by this at all. In fact he tries to engage with the man and his dog as much as possible. ‘Sit! Good dog’. Hegley’s engaging with the audience is second to none: always spontaneous yet always in character. Whether he has an onstage persona or whether this is his natural self is difficult to ascertain. As soon as he enters the room, singing with the accompaniment of his mandolin, he invites two children onto the stage for a drawing contest. “Draw me a flower” he sings, and later “Oh, that’s not very good”.

Each of the flowers are added to a mural, covered already with flowers from previous performances. He asks a man on the fifth row to draw him some grass. “What colour would you like?”

And so it goes: drawing, poetry, singing, banter, audience involvement. Nobody seems scared to be ‘picked on’. An hour of this sort of japery is quite lovely – a perfect, gentle way to spend the lunching hour.

Hegley’s style is to channel perfectly domestic incidents and childhood memories into his anecdotes and plinky-plunky poetry. “It was a highly upsetting incident,” he remarks about an occasion on which he was lambasted by a dance teacher for getting carried away, “but it’s nice to make a bit of money out of it later in life”.

The poetry is usually very short – often just between one and four lines – with an abrupt but hilarious end. The result is a highly talented joke-telling machine gun. In one verse he provides the context, his thoughts and a punchline. He also likes a challenge: today he orates a rhyming poem about an octopus “who gets a nasty shocktopus”. Some of his stuff could easily be sold to kids, but it’s impossible as a grown-up not to get caught up in his charmingly eccentric style.

At the end of the performance, there is a five-minute Q&A. Someone asks him what he’ll do with the mural now that the show has ended its run. This results in an impromptu charity auction: twenty-five quid is raised for Amnesty International.

At the end you’re left thinking, “Please come back next year, John. Pleeeease!” He will be though. He’s a total veteran.

The Book Club – All New Fighting Years

Originally published at The Groggy Squirrel

British comedy is often at the centre of a merciless tug o’war between the jocks and the nerds. It rope is tugged in each direction: owned by the ‘blue’ comedians in the early 1970s only to be taken by the satirists; divided oddly by alternative comedy in the 80s; taken by the lads again as ‘the new rock and roll’ in the 90s; reclaimed by geek power of Lee and Herring snatched away by Skinner and Baddiel’s Fantasy Football laddishess; back to the quiet boys in the corner by The League of Gentlemen and again to the popular kids again by Little Britain, Bo’ Selecta! and Catherine Tate.

Don’t worry though. Nerds and losers are back in vogue thanks to Daniel Kitson, Josie Long, The Mighty Boosh, Toby Hadoki and The Book Club. Josie Long’s “Drawing Moustaches in Magazines Monthly Magazine (Bi-Monthy)” is apparenty aimed at “Losers, Misfits and the Anxious”.

The Book Club has a short but interesting history. A group of comedians, most notably Robin Ince and the aforementioned Josie Long (now the proud holder of an if.comedy award), got together to launch a new showcase of friendly, non-confrontational comedy. It has been a refreshing alternative to the reign of laddish stuff in the eternal tug o’ war.

What is The Book Club? In a nutshell, our bookish comedians read passages from books aquired recently from local charity shops: all of them strange and rubbish. Popular lines of investigation include Mills and Boon pulpy romances; self help guides; astonishingly bad horror or sci-fi paperbacks; and memoirs of washed-up TV personalities. An ever-present tome during tonight’s show is “Yoga for Men”: a large hardback depicting a woman in a yogic squat, bearing a massive pair of hooters.

Tonight’s show was good. Robin Ince is a lovely puppydog-faced Alan Bennett-a-like whose orations from Catherine Cookson’s poetry and selection of “Medical Romances” is accompanied by an interpretive dancer and an opera singer. You never got that with Skinner and Baddiel.

Perhaps the jewel in the crown of tonight’s performance is camp Australian, Asher Treleaven. Announced as a reader of ‘self help books’, Asher reads from a selection of bad romances and a dangerous-looking thriller simply titled “WEAPON” in which our narrator tells us how to guess the nationality of a woman by gawping at her breasts through a pair of binoculars. Creepy. Apparently for want of a proper exit strategy, Asher treats/subjects us to a painfully geeky dance to a piece of classic Meatloaf.

There is slightly too much pantomime and childish CBBC-style interaction between the comics for comfort and Robin Ince’s frequent meandering between a stationary microphone and his book table is a bit hard on the ears. One can’t help thinking that the fostering of a more intimate atmosphere would be better for this sort of comedy. This aside though, The Book Club makes for a successful cabaret of amusing found-pieces and inexplicable humour which, like the acts and the audience, has trouble fitting in.

Luke Wright, Poet & Man

The poet, Tim Turnbull, once opined that the difference between stand-up comedians and performance poets was that the poets try to make money by selling their books during the intervals while the comics “just want to be loved… like dogs”.

A good point well made, but there are other differences too. It’s a matter of punctuation: the stand-up comedian must annexe his sentences with a shrill exclamation mark if he’s to get the belly laughs he’s after. The performance poet or the humourist can get away with a humble full-stop and is happy with a few nods of agreement and the occasional isolated chuckle in the darkness.

A stand-up comedian would never orate someone else’s work either (unless he happens to be Joe Pasquale). Repetition of another’s material is comedian kryptonite. But Luke Wright, as performance poet, boldly goes there.

The set, as the audience enters the room, consists of a bookcase and an occasional table stocked to the gills with excellent books. From Kafka to Harry Potter and The Bible to Zadie Smith, it’s all there. Breaking up the flow of his own poetry, Luke reads selected paragraphs, humourous and profound, from his favourite books with energy and a passion.

I see in the bookcase that there is a copy of ‘The Idler’ magazine in which I published my first essay. “Go on!” I tell the poet telepathically, “Read it!” Alas, no dice. He decided to read Goethe or something instead. There’s no accounting for taste.

The theme of the evening is masculinity (which explains why my piece got overlooked) and the selected pieces from his library highlight ideas discussed in Luke’s own works. His poems apparently derive from real-life experiences concerned with symbols of masculinity: his car, his childhood friends, his working class origins in Colchester “where not a lot of culture stirs”, his less-than-manly role as a poet and his the problems associated with “big gay face”. What emerges is the portrait of a culture-thirsty, eager-to-entertain, slightly socially awkward young man. It’s good and one can tell that poetry is therapy to Mr. Wright.

As an entire it works rather well. What works less well is Luke’s ad-libbed attempts at stand-up connecting everything together. His hubris isn’t quite ironic enough to make you laugh and you’re left feeling a little awkward for it. But this aside, his show is a five-star performance.

Andy Zaltzman

Originally published at The Groggy Squirrel


If your budget for this year’s festival is a little lower than usual and you want to stick to the ‘safe bets’ rather than squandering your money on something dubious, Andy Zaltzman should certainly be towards the top of your list. Hard to believe he’s only been performing since 2000, Zaltzman is a seasoned satirist and a real Fringe institute.

He’s one of those natural comedians who you can’t imagine being anything else (he even resembles a clown with his receding mop of curly red hair) and though he often gives the caveat that the new show might be a little ‘shambolic’, it never ever is. He just talks and gold comes out:

Zaltzman: Where in the world is better than the United Kingdom?

Audience member: Switzerland!

Zaltzman: Why Switzerland?

Audience member: They have the chocolate.

Zaltzman: Yes, but how do they pay for all that chocolate? Nazi gold.

This year’s complexly titled show explores the idea of utopia and how we, the plebs, could do a better job of running things than any government. Zaltzman develops, with suggestions from the audience, a microcosmic society in the form of a flea circus. The end result is presumably different with each show.

In addition to ‘utopia’, Zaltzman is comparing the late night ‘Political Animal’ show at the Underbelly and performing at various nocturnal cabarets such as the notorious ‘Late and Live’ and the brilliant ‘Spank’. ‘Utopia’ takes place at a staggeringly early 3pm, meaning that Andy has to deal with audiences of the remarkably drunk and the painfully sober. It takes a good improviser to deal with both ends of the alcoholic spectrum in the same day.

The demographic of Andy’s audience is telling. A man behind me laughs loudly into my ear at anything vaguely political, to demonstrate that he ‘gets it’ and is up on the political zeitgeist. When Zaltzman asks about good alternatives to democracy, the answers that come back are “Philosopher King” and “Benevolent Dictator”. One member of the audience makes a heckle about the economic advantages of terrorism before announcing that he is a student of international relations. Political animals, one and all.

And this is Zaltzman’s brand: intelligent political satire with an absurdist edge. You can’t go wrong really.

Johnson and Boswell – Late But Live

Originally published at The Groggy Squirrel.

Openly insulting Scotland to its face has become a recurring theme in the latest works of Stewart Lee. Thankfully, it is an imagined Scotland of haggis and shortbread and an arachnid Robert the Bruce that is the object of his comedy scorn and the result is very, very funny.

“To say that a Scot speaks English,” opines his devised version of Samuel Johnson, “is to say that a dog eats a bone when in fact he merely mauls it”.

Such is the meat of this piece of comedy theatre: Simon Munnery as Dr. Johnson, lambasting Scotland for what he perceives to be its incivilities and peculiarities. In a belated book launch for Johnson and Boswell’s ‘A Journal of a tour to the Hebrides’, ‘Late But Live’ is a combination of stand-up comedy and theatre successfully blurring the boundaries between the two.

Simon Munnery is brilliant as Johnson. Perfectly cast, Munnery even looks like the good doctor and the parallels between this new character and Munnery’s infamous ‘League Against Tedium’ creation are myriad. A robust and regal creature, turgid with Nietzche-like witticisms and angry judgements.

Miles Jupp, perhaps best known for his portrayal of Archie the Inventor in BBC Scotland’s ‘Balamory’, makes a first-rate Boswell. He starts out as a smug champion of Johnson’s work (if always operating in his shadow) and ends up as his victim and appologist.

It’s difficult to say exactly how much input Stewart Lee had into this cleverly shaped piece of comedy theatre but it has many of his hallmarks. There is even a cheeky mention of Lee’s erstwhile colleague Patrick Marber (“the Johnson to his Boswell; the Marber to his Coogan”).

The play falters a little in the fourth act but its important to remember that Edinburgh is designed to be a launch pad for new material and a Petri dish for bold experiments. ‘Jerry Springer – the Opera’ felt a little half-baked at the Assembly Rooms back in 2003 and is now a tight and worthy object of international recognition. It feels good to be present at the start of something excellent.

Whether ‘Late but Live’ becomes a phenomenon of Jerry Springer proportions remains to be seen (or whether that is the intent) but it certainly has the potential.

Martin Soan

Originally published at The Skinny

Long before Vic Reeves or Harry Hill brought their brands of surreal humour to the mainstream, Martin Soan was tickling our fringe fancies with his impossible costumes and absurd enactments. While Soan is assuredly an originator of alternative comedy, he is not a stand-up as anyone would ordinarily define the concept. You won’t find many gags in his set revolving around humorous observation or witty digression, but rather an energetic piece of one-man theatre with lightning fast changes of homemade costume and a ridiculous surplus of bizarre and unpredictable props. Watching Soan perform is more akin to watching a cartoon made flesh than a stand-up comedian. When you laugh, it will be an uncontrollable and childish giggle: his jokes are stealth bombers flying beneath the radar of our sophisticated adult sensibilities. When was the last time you laughed at a hat? Or a pair of fake eyebrows? Martin Soan is at once hilarious, terrifying and childish, and is a master of non-sequitur.

Laugh space: a guide to alternative venues

As a comedy festival begins to attract attention from the international community, it inevitably unfurls its tentacles into a variety of unexpected venues. Just look at Edinburgh: the ‘Fringe’ is the main focus of the festival where it used to just shout obscenities from the edges. Somehow Edinburgh has become a festival of obscene edges.

Now in its fourth year, the Glasgow International Comedy Festival is becoming the sort of monster that requires every last square inch of space it can lay its moist and clammy mitts on, which is why this year’s eighteen-day crossing of comedy leylines has grown to incorporate some rather unconventional spaces.

We still love The Stand Comedy Club here at the Skinny but in honour of The Stand’s humble beginnings, you may also want to explore some of the smaller burgeoning comedy venues such as Brel on Ashton Lane, The Buff Club on Bath Lane, Universal on Sauchiehall Lane, The State Bar on Holland St, or even The Viper Lounge (AKA: Clarty Pat’s), on Great Western Road. With a pick ‘n’ mix of if.comedy winners, magicians, heretics and comedy neds, it’s worth scouring the basements and corners of your local bars to see what you might find (failing that, try down the back of the sofa).

Also of note is the beautiful Britannia Panopticon Music Hall on Trongate which this year sees acts from a Sock Puppet Orchestra, poet Robin Cairns and a sexy young punk called Robert Wringham [authorised plug- Ed]. Entry to Panopticon events is FREE though true ladies and gents and patrons of the arts will chuck a couple of quid into the donations hat.

The 35 strong comedy hot spots list doesn’t even include the ‘Glasgow Stands Up on Your Doorstep’ series of events. Once you get past the potentially terrifying title, you’ll see that it’s a brilliant idea. Comedians come to community centres at Toryglen, Langside, Easterhouse and Castlemilk to ensure that no one in the greater Glasgow population misses the chance for a heckle.

The expanding fringe of the Glasgow Comedy Festival is testament to its increasing popularity. In 2009, we’ll find comedians performing in elevators, taxi cabs and out of the bums of tramps. You’ll see.

Why not Sadowitz?

Originally published at TMCQ

“Popularity is the crown of laurel which the world puts on bad art. Whatever is popular is wrong.” – Oscar Wilde.

It’s one helluva coincidence that Ivor Cutler died just one tiny week before the Glasgow comedy scene did. One can only hope that both will soon return from beyond the grave and feast upon the flesh of Karen Dunbar.

Like a giant jellied eel caught in the tractor beam of some unseen spacecraft, the promotional banner for Glasgow’s fourth international comedy festival hangs twisted, limp and gaudy over Sauchiehall Street numerous days after the fact. The banner’s principal feature is the laughing face of a pissed-up Scottish thistle: a demented piece of clipart leering over the Saturday shoppers and making children cry.

Over at The Stand comedy club, his tour posters hadn’t even been up for fifteen minutes before someone had scrawled three sixes onto Jimmy Carr’s forehead. It must have been irresistible to commit such an act, partly due to the pale and spacious nature of the canvas but mainly as an act of rebellion against the dilute comedy mainstream, of which Jimmy Carr is seen to have become symbolic.

Actually, Mr. Carr was rather on form at his gig at the massive Clyde Auditorium: witty, collected and on-the-ball. But one can’t deny that his being this year’s headline performer illustrates the planners’ lack of vision for what the festival has the power to represent. Why not promote Jerry Sadowitz as the headline act? He’s controversial, underappreciated and – after all – Glaswegian. Instead, he’s tucked away doing one-offs at the ghastly ABC music venue.

At a time when the Edinburgh Festival is being accused of facilitating the big names of comedy in order to make a fast buck while providing ill support for those on the periphery, it is surprising that Glasgow isn’t using its new comedy festival to make up for Edinburgh’s foolish mistake by celebrating and rewarding fringe tastes.

There’s an annoying hotchpotch of residential comedians this year doing precisely the same routines that they always do. The likes of Michael Redmond, Vladimir McTavish and Susan Morrison, as wonderful as they are, are in-house acts and can barely count as festival assets. In fact, the house crowd should take the opportunity to visit the Shetland Isles or stay at home and put their feet up. It’s also hard to believe that the festival programme includes such touring theatre shows as Jerry Springer: The Opera and The Vagina Monologues as official events, which just happen to be in the city at the same time as the festival. Such an entity stitched-together from native wildlife and unfortunate gypsies reminds one of the legend of Glasgow’s erstwhile zoo: “three pigeons and a depressed goat,” as it is so often described. It’s surprising that the organisers didn’t count the local Cineworld’s screenings of Big Momma’s House 2 as a festival item or note the presence of Billy Connolly’s biography in a public library.

Comedy should push the envelope right off the table and into the cat litter tray. It should aim to be a thorn in the side of conservative or liberal ideas and to piss off as many people as possible so that we might learn to laugh at our belief systems and personal nuances. It should provide a voice for the common man and channel the collective’s anger, neuroses and fear in a twenty-minute lecture about willies. Irony and non-sequitur have the potential to succeed where bombs on public transport systems and half-baked presidential promises have failed. That’s why Jimmy Carr is an unacceptable headline act and why Jerry Sadowitz should be swearing and throwing his props around in sold-out auditoriums.

Stand-up has often been charged with taking over from theatre at the Edinburgh Festival and being (particularly in the 1990s) ‘the new rock ‘n’ roll’. Either way, it is known to be a medium which must subvert rather than be another sedative for the opiated masses. A permanent descent into Jongleurs-style, office-night-out observational blandness would mean a great loss.

We need acts that are different, shocking and unpredictable; acts that don’t tell us what we know already or have noticed with our own non-comedian’s eyes. That Chris Lynham left his weeklong stay at The Stand before the festival kicked off and that Daniel Kitson took his corduroy humour home even before that is nothing less than a tragedy for Glasgow. Where’s Chris Addison when you need him? Munnery? Lee? Long? Buxton? Graffoe? Actually, we do have Boothby Graffoe. At least that’s something. Unfortunately it doesn’t make up for the facts that Jim Bowen is (a) less than five miles away from me as I write this and (b) still alive.

Does anyone have the programme for Edinburgh yet?

Everyone likes Herring

Originally published at

An entry for the Allen Wright Award

It has been recently voiced (by Stuart Jeffries in The Guardian) that the inhabitants of Old Blighty might be losing their internationally reputed sense of good humour. When the talk of the town revolves around Ricky Gervais’ painful exploration of social faux-pas in Extras and a giraffe spunking into the faces of twenty old women in The League of Gentlemen’s Apocalypse, it’s not difficult to see why such rumours might be in circulation. Watching a woman take pleasure in waiting for her cancer-riddled husband to finally sink into eternity in Nighty Night is a far cry from tuning in to the latest bathtub shenanigans of Last of the Summer Wine.

While British TV comedy is inarguably becoming more avant-garde, it’s important to remember that comedy has always had a black nugget at its heart. A character from even the most conservative sitcom should struggle with at least a small degree of inner conflict if he or she is to generate the laughs.

Such conflict (and symbiosis) is present in Richard Herring’s latest live offering: ‘Someone Likes Yoghurt’. He sublimely balances the crucial with the trivial and tackles nihilistic despair with his unique Herring-brand impishness. As an ambassador of British comedy (he is the latest to be honoured as script editor for Little Britain; features in indie film, A very British Cult and is co-creator of Britcom, Time Gentlemen Please) Rich proves that the rumours of Britain losing track of what’s funny, have been greatly exaggerated.

As well as enjoying four years of televisual mainstream, Richard Herring has managed to remain a Fringe heavyweight and along with Jerry Sadowitz, Kevin Gildea and Simon Munnery, he was one of the key motivators for my own vin dit into comedy writing.

Last night I was lucky enough to be at the opening Edinburgh performance of ‘Someone Likes Yoghurt’. Despite delivering a trilogy of hugely enjoyable one-man shows in recent years (‘Christ on a Bike’, ‘Talking Cock’ and ‘The Twelve Tasks of Hercules Terrace’), Herring advertises ‘Yoghurt’ as being a return to stand-up after a thirteen year sabbatical.

But don’t be hoodwinked into thinking that this ‘return to stand-up’ will provide a comfortable seat in the ship of convention: despite the free and easy one-man-and-a-microphone format of the show, ‘Yoghurt’ is unlike anything else you’ll find at The Pleasance this year. With subjects including a new method for preserving lives of sperm and the problems surrounding the ‘magpie reward system’, Herring’s current strain of stand-up maintains some distance from that of so many other comedians: where others try to snag attention by being obviously topical or ungainly edgy, Herring seems to aim for the universally and inherently funny. And he’s aware of this too, given that he makes fu of the deliberate engineering of controversy that so many comedians find themselves doing at the moment: ‘Yes. I said it. Edgy,’ he comments after declaring that 19th century writer, Rudyard Kipling ‘is a twat’.

‘Yoghurt’ allows Herring to pick up his old stand-up persona from his Lee and Herring days: the pedantic, arrogant but lovable idiot from Cheddar. It’s the return of the Richard Herring who once said “I can tell you, Stew, that a gnat’s chuff is literally as tight as a gnat’s chuff”. Bizarrely and excellently, the character has grown and developed despite its being repressed, presumably into the subconscious of the real-life Herring for something like thirteen years, only occasionally resurfacing in the electronic pages of ‘Warming Up’.

In case you’re wondering, the show’s title comes from an incident in his local Sainsbury’s mini-market. Upon purchasing (among other things, he’d be keen to remind you) nine pots of yoghurt, the checkout girl reportedly gave him a surprised look and opined that ‘Someone,’ indeed, ‘likes yoghurt’ to a disproportional extent. The event inspired Herring to dedicate fifteen minutes of his one-hour set defending himself against the insinuation that he’s a sexually-tilted weirdo with a yoghurt obsession.

‘I don’t like yoghurt any more than the next lactose-tolerant person’, he protests.

We believe you, Rich. We believe you.