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.